The Criminological Imagination

The Criminological Imagination Author: Jock Young
Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011. 252p.
Reviewer: Candace McCoy | September 2012

Nobody writes books anymore. The standard outlet for criminological research – indeed, scholarship from all of the social sciences – is the data-driven journal article. The profession is increasingly citation-mad, statistically-obsessed, and incapable of big thinking. Even when criminologists and criminal justicians do write books, they are mostly steroidal dissertations, slavishly following the standard formula of “introduction, literature review, hypotheses and methods, analysis, discussion” – and heavy on the methods and analysis while thin on the discussion, at that.

Thank heavens, Jock Young still writes books. This particular one gives us a sprawling and deeply critical – in several senses of that word – attack on the current state of the criminological profession. Taking as his starting point C. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination, Young says that criminologists have become so enamored of Abstracted Empiricism (Mills’s term) that we have forgotten what it is exactly that we are studying. We apply more and more data to smaller and smaller topics, producing less and less meaning. In our more candid moments, we admit this, yet we continue to “skate on thin ice,” as Young describes it. Knowing that our statistics barely describe the phenomenon we are supposed to be explaining, we pretend that the methods are solid. Young’s book demands that we take a difficult look at the ice beneath our skates and think about changing course.

These ideas will cause discomfort among the more positivistically-inclined of the profession, but Young does not reject empiricism entirely. He just thinks we should be honest about its limits and its abuses, using it to feed rather than starve the “criminological imagination.” The book has already sparked a lively and sometimes acrimonious debate among members of the American Society of Criminology. (Young’s author-meets-critic session at the November 2011 annual conference was packed, and attendees afterwards reported they had seen “blood sport.”) The Brits, by contrast, have used the publication of this book to reward their countryman. Young was recently given the 2012 Outstanding Achievement Award by the British Society of Criminology, partly due, no doubt, to the publication of this book as a crowning achievement in a body of work spanning four decades. (Disclosure notice: I myself admire Jock’s work and regard him as a valued colleague at CUNY’s John Jay and Graduate Center. His office is next to mine, and between us, seldom is heard a discouraging word. Admittedly, I am inclined to write a positive review here.)

So, this book. Actually, this work is so rich that it seems to be several small books. They are:
            •           An assault on positivism
            •           A defense of cultural criminology
            •           A critique of “the Great American Crime Decline”
            •           An inquiry about late modernity and the constructed self
            •           A call to “imagine” criminological phenomena and apply empirical methods only as appropriate to the large questions that emerge

The topics converge in the main point of the book: social science (particularly criminology) as currently practiced is inept, but things would get better if the discipline would adopt the research approach of cultural criminology. There are seven chapters demonstrating that criminology is not science and four urging a cultural approach instead. As a person whose home disciplines are political science and law, I feel unqualified to analyze the cultural criminology side of this argument, though I must say that chapter 9, “Dangerous Knowledge and the Politics of the Imagination,” is good reading for any academic worried about what exactly we are doing to our hapless students. Moreover, his review of earlier arguments about “othering” (found in Chapter 8, “Subcultures as Magic”) is fascinating but ultimately problematic. That is, by acknowledging that a researcher is an observer and by definition therefore must “other” her subjects, deeper questions of the impossibility of achieving truthful representations of the subject are raised. In his insistence on rejecting foundational “truth” and to “dispel the nightmares of essentialism” because “one’s notions of rationality . . . are social constructs,” Young’s argument seems to be heading squarely for the postmodern tenet, standpoint truth: truth depends on time, place, situation, and the place the observer stands to construct it. Young says that this is “not a recipe for relativism, but a cure for absolutism” (Young: 171-172).
Hmmm. In the 21st century, is absolutism the problem anymore? Young says that the researcher herself changes because of the experience of inquiry, that the subjects themselves change over time and even through the experience of being subjects, that sterile science cannot capture how “people evolve to give identity, expressiveness, and warmth to their lives) (Young: 165). But he then pulls back from naming this as relativistic social “science.” Why not? Perhaps we should be honest and celebrate relativism, admitting it and explaining it as we go along in our research.

I have skated onto ice somewhat unfamiliar to me, so I leave these questions to cultural criminologists to ponder as they read this book. Moving back, the remainder of this review will cover the seven chapters that deal with research methods in criminal justice, the drop in reported crime, and perverting criminal justice in the service of politics.  Return to the first part of Young’s argument: that criminologists slavishly over-rely on empirical methods (both quantitative and qualitative) in explaining crime, and that their work is used to support political programs which ultimately oppress the poor. I will concentrate on Chapter 6, “Guliani and the New York Miracle,” offering some of my own responses to Young’s devastating critique of The Great American Crime Decline as supposedly a product of “quality of life” policing.

This book provides a hard-hitting and very amusing (but nevertheless at its base somewhat stale) critique of the current state of research methodology in the criminological specialization specifically, and the social sciences generally. It then offers cultural criminology as the savior of the discipline. The version of critical criminology advocated here is less leftist/Marxist than was typical of critical criminology in the 1960s-1980s, and more aligned with what today might be called “cultural studies” which proceed from a radical critique of social inequality but not necessarily political prescription.
That the critique of positivism seems somewhat stale is due, no doubt, to the advanced age of this reviewer. Debates about the capacity of social science to measure anything meaningful with precision, the advisability of a positivistic methodology, and the nature of truth are passionate in youth but not as much in old age. Presumably, all the youngsters out there are still debating them hotly, as you must if you intend to be a thinking member of the profession. Oldsters might read Young’s book and say “oh, he’s dredging this up again.” However, once dredged up, the debates are seen to have been neglected recently and worth reviving. Just because we all argued about these matters vociferously when we were undergraduates does not mean we should forget these absolutely fundamental concerns now that we are practicing professionals. Any social scientist who believes he or she has the final answers in these debates is intellectually dead. Young demands that we remember our roots and, in heeding Mills’s warnings that sociology must not be allowed to decay into “abstracted empiricism,” he brings foundational debates about how and how well knowledge is produced back to the contemporary criminological enterprise.  

Assuming one agrees that criminology has become divorced from its subject, engaged in mindless number crunching that does not understand what it is supposedly measuring, “distancing from the subject matter, and bracketing off issues of power and inequality” (Young: 19), the question of what to do about it remains.  The typical answer is: engage in research that uses both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, don’t use statistical techniques that are inappropriate or grandiose for the research question posed, be aware that “the crime control industry has come to exert, especially in the United States, a near hegemonic influence upon large sections of academic criminology” (Young: 21), and analyze your data as objectively and non-tendentiously as possible. This mainstream answer is, to Young, the result of criminologists’ “techniques of neutralization” that would make any of Matza’s subjects blush in shame.  The answer is not enough, he says, and the profession should stop deluding itself about what its methodology is doing. Young believes that criminologists have to go deeper, questioning the very value of positivism and acknowledging that truth is continually contested and scarcely absolute. Apparently he believes that criminologists who do question the value of positivistic research methodologies and who do agree that truth is a construction will inevitably be led to cultural criminology as “what to do about it.” In that he may be wrong, but at least this book explains why critical/cultural criminology may be a viable option. If the reader finds his prescription to be ineffective, it is up to the reader to come up with something better, which would open a very welcome and refreshing debate within the discipline.

But first, consider those techniques of neutralization. Young believes that criminologists are knowingly “skating on thin ice,” desperately careening forward because to pause and try to fix the flaws in our research would cause us to sink. He begins by citing major problems of representativeness and truth in large databases that often are used for criminological theory-testing. For example, in the 1980s a national survey of sexual practices was funded with the goal of providing an estimate of the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly AIDS.  Of course, any survey first requires finding people to interview and next obtaining their consent to the research. But the most at-risk populations, such as the homeless or drug users, often cannot be found to be interviewed, and when found often will not consent because they fear adverse repercussions in the form of arrest or other official intervention. The result is that the databases are missing numbers about the very people we would expect to provide the extreme data values, and thus the entire database is skewed and unrepresentative of the population. As for the problem of “truth” in this dataset about sexual practices and risk of STDs, Young gives the example of gender differences in answering the question “how many sexual partners have you had in the previous year?” Men report many partners per year, whereas women report only one.  Where are men finding all those extra partners? Even accounting for the fact that many of the sexual encounters may be with homosexuals or prostitutes, the reported volume of men’s sexual partners conflicts very sharply with what the women are saying. The answer is that the survey data tell us little about how many sex partners people actually have, but a lot about sexual mores and gender roles. The “truth” about the numbers of sexual partners a person has each year is masked by the images the interviewees, both men and women, want to project about themselves.

Young points out that the example of sex surveys shows how statistical datasets may be flawed in their capacity to represent the population under study and to present a truthful depiction of subjects’ characteristics. His larger point is more specific to the discipline of criminology. That is, criminologists usually study subjects who are deviant, poor, and/or uneducated. Yet it is exactly these subjects who are least likely to be included in surveys. By incorrectly assuming that statistics accurately depict the populations with which we are most deeply concerned, criminologists draw inaccurate conclusions and fail to explain the lives of people who most need to have their stories told.

If Young is correct in this observation that criminologists knowingly rely on unrepresentative data, analyzing what we know to be flawed material and therefore producing inaccurate descriptions and drawing bogus conclusions, we should pause for a moment to examine it from the viewpoint of ethics. Surely it is honorable to admit honestly that one’s actions are flawed. But is it ethical to continue doing them? The honesty in acknowledging weakness does not provide sufficient ethical cover for continuing misrepresentation. Unfortunately, Young says, many criminologists congratulate themselves on noting that their regression models, for instance, seldom explain much of the total variation in a dependent variable, but then simply skate on quickly as if their analyses can be said actually to capture the broad world being studied.  Because their work must produce something, they cannot admit to themselves that it is incomplete and would benefit from some help from other disciplines and some humility in explaining to the public that there is a lot more going on than we are currently able to measure.

Drawing on David Matza’s insights about the thought processes of criminals, Young catalogs ways in which the profession twists and contorts to avoid its ethical quandaries in conducting research. For instance, he cites “the fetishism of numbers,” in which analysts of large datasets desperately cling to “the illusion of precision” (Young: 44) in order to stay above icy, murky waters teeming with squishy social phenomena. Because they do not actually talk to human subjects, quantitative criminologists do not know where the numbers came from or what they are actually measuring or, ultimately, what they mean.  Technique of neutralization #2: believe that numbers, because they look precise, are autonomous and interchangeable among diverse contexts. For example, international victimization surveys afford comparison among nations because they ask the same questions of subjects in many countries. But the social contexts are so different, and the meaning of particular behaviors or system responses so embedded in cultural explanations, that comparison does not provide as robust a picture of trans-national crime and justice as its practitioners aver.  Technique of neutralization #3: normalize anomaly. In this scenario, the researcher observes data that cut against the expected outcomes, acknowledges the problem, but then simply concludes that the numbers are outliers and can therefore safely be ignored. By relying on statistics as the end of the research process rather than the beginning, important clues for explaining behavioral motivations are lost. Technique of neutralization #4: what Young calls “the technical fix” and I regard as “alchemy.” In this scenario, the researcher knows and acknowledges that the data are bad but says that someday we will find a statistical technique to fix them, so it is all right to use them in the meantime. In this way, gold is apparently produced from a base metal. Technique of neutralization #5: build a house of cards by over-specializing. Pile study upon study within the same discipline, and do not look outside it to other disciplines that would inform the undertaking because they tend to knock down the cards used as the base of the argument. Here, Young rants that willful disciplinary myopia produces the current sad state of measures of professional quality within social science disciplines: counting citations in journals within one’s own specialization becomes the basis for professional promotion and reputation, devaluing the contributions of scholars who write books or who read and think interdisciplinarily. In this way, blindness replicates itself and human knowledge does not develop.

As someone who likes to think of herself as a writer of books and reviews and interdisciplinary policy analysis rather than hypothesis tests, my first inclination is to cheer Young and join his cultural criminology army. But upon second thought, I must engage in the reflexive pondering that Young himself recommends to all social scientists. Am I perhaps too quick to criticize my quantoid colleagues, no matter how stinging and accurate Young’s insights may be, because I stink at math? In taunting social scientists by saying they have “physics envy” (Young’s phrase, not mine, and not Freud’s,) is Young simply devising a clever dodge for the fact that he and I can’t do hierarchical linear modeling?

“Not quite,” he says (Young: 54). While Jock and I have both laughed at each other’s struggles with mathematics, we and other interdisciplinary scholars who work the criminological fields all have the requisite training in methods and statistics and will recognize statistical significance wherever it may be found. The problem is that often it doesn’t tell us much. The book concludes:

“None of this is to eschew the quantitative. The criticism does not revolve round the imperfect and approximate nature of measurement . . . [but] the false belief that, as Mills put it, truth is reflected in precision . . . ‘hard’ data change with culture and human interpretation, and findings are historically situated and lack any nomothetic quality. They have a capriciousness which sits ill with pretensions of science” (Young: 224).

Moreover, these incomplete and sterile findings are used politically as justifications for policies and programs aligned with the agendas of the powerful. In what is perhaps the angriest of the book’s chapters, Young derides “Guliani and the New York Miracle.” In a story by now familiar to any living criminologist or criminal justician from a Western country, since the late 1980s reported felony crime has dropped drastically in 13 of 21 industrialized nations. Explaining this “great crime decline” has become something of a cottage industry for American criminologists, but not so elsewhere.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that American criminology is tied closely to the operations of the criminal justice system, looking mechanically to policies about police and prisons (and related research grant money) as the explanation for lower felony crime, when they should be looking at factors not closely tied to government or private security. There have been major social and economic changes over the past three decades in Europe, the Americas, and Japan (which alone experienced a 70% drop in reported crime!) yet only the United States and Britain embraced imprisonment and strict “quality of life” policing as crime-reduction methods. Young is gob smacked – as they say in Britain – by the myopia of American criminology and how it can narrow our intellectual horizons. Look abroad, he says, and you will find other compelling and competing explanations.

Since this is not a literature review, we will not wade through the many articles and a few books about Broken Windows, quality of life policing, zero tolerance drug use and other deviance, turnstile jumping . . . ah, you know the arguments by now. However, one specific smaller piece of the debate concerns the crime drop in New York City, and Young wades in by critiquing Zimring’s recent book, The Great American Crime Decline (2007), specifically its chapter on New York City’s “Natural Experiment.” In this and subsequent work on New York’s crime control achievements, (see his 2011 book specifically on New York, which was published at the same time as Young’s book was and therefore is not included in Young’s critique,) Zimring set out to understand why crime declined more in New York than in other American cities. He also compared the USA statistics to those of Canada, a country with very different criminal justice policies and economy, which experienced the same crime drop as most cities in the USA did.  The standard answer to “why did crime drop even more in New York than elsewhere?” is: whatever is going on nationally and even internationally brought the crime rate down in New York as it did elsewhere, but the extra decline is due to Broken Windows, quality of life policing, and Compstat. Zimring generally agrees with this (though, in typical Zimring style, his argument is much more energetic and creative than the standard one), which drives Young mad — as in, “angry.”

New York, his adopted home town, is an astonishing metropolis that is more ethnically diverse, younger, economically unique, and internationally-focused than any other American city.  Just looking around from his home perch in Brooklyn, Young identifies several variables that could have caused crime to drop here more sharply than elsewhere, and none of them involve police or repression of people involved in low-level deviance. To start, he observed that since 1995, New York has received a huge influx of immigrants who settle here or eventually fan out into the rest of the country. As Sampson has shown, immigrants bring lower crime rates with them; diversity may lead to “greater visibility of competing non-violent mores” (Sampson: 2008). Crime dropped most in New York neighborhoods previously populated almost exclusively by Afro-American blacks but now integrated with non-white immigrants. Furthermore, Young says, the drug fashions of youth both black and white have changed.  He points also to changes in the economy, in which he sees “a proliferation of servants, almost invisible and never called servants” (p. 117), the working poor whose working hours have became longer as the economy worsened.

Perhaps the most intriguing factor listed here is “the feminization of the public sphere,” which Young quite correctly says “just has to have had some effect on civility” but is never mentioned in American discussions of the drop in crime. Our streets, bars, and workplaces are no longer exclusively testosterone-ridden, and though they may not be “kinder and gentler,” they certainly do not have an undertone of physical violence just waiting to break out. New York has a higher percentage of single females than any other large American city — a ratio that has held constant over the past two decades. (Is it coincidence that the hit television show “Sex in the City,” highly popular and profitable for over a decade as it tapped into the single-woman demographic, was set in New York?) Glancing back to the 1970s, recall Freda Adler’s book Sisters in Crime, which predicted big changes in crime rates due to the increasing participation of women in public life. The mass media interpreted this to mean: higher crime because women will become more like men. Forty years later, we might say that Adler was right but the media were not — crime rates indeed changed, but partly because men became more like women.

This argument is consistent with recent research in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. (See especially Steven Pinker’s 2011 The Better Angels of our Nature.) Criminologists could be looking to research in the natural sciences and the other social scientists as they think about why crime is down, but instead they reach into a “severely restricted concept box,” as Young calls it, and come out with criminal justice system policies as the explanation. Young does not reserve his disdain for Americans. He also criticizes England’s use of “anti-social behavior orders” as the equivalent of Broken Windows policing, but notes that the English did not claim ASBOs worked crime-down miracles. Young says that the politics of fear has driven policy there; to acknowledge the drop in crime would be to cut against the obsession with anti-social behavior underlying contemporary British anti-crime policies.

The reader’s response to Young’s call for broad sociological thinking about why crime is down in New York is to begin free-associating on the concept of “crime causation.” Personally, I have become obsessed with my hypothesis that crime began to drop nationwide at the same time as cellphones were invented, continuing to drop at the same rate as phone usage per capita increased. Later, when phones became cameras, everyone became capable guardians and routine activities theory got another boost, but so did the idea that collective efficacy is the best crime prevention. Nowhere would this effect be more powerful than in New York, which has the highest population density of any American city and a tech-savvy population ready to call, text, and photograph each other doing just about any activity, good or bad. Criminologists note: you heard it here first.

Such speculation does seem to be the sort of thing Young prescribes as “cultural criminology,” though it seems to be good old-fashioned sociology at heart. C. Wright Mills would certainly agree.


Adler, Freda, Sisters in Crime: The Rise of the New Female Criminal (New York: McGraw Hill, 1975)
Pinker, Steven, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Viking Press, 2011)
Sampson, Robert, “Rethinking Crime and Immigration,” Contexts (American Sociological Association, Winter, 2008)
Zimring, Franklin, The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control (Oxford University Press 2011)
The Great American Crime Decline (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Candace McCoy, The Graduate Center and John Jay College, City University of New York

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