Emotions, Crime and Justice

Emotions, Crime and Justice

Susanne Karstedt, Ian Loader and Heather Strang, editors
Oxford, UK; Portland, OR: Hart, 2011. 380 p.
Reviewer: Susan A. Bandes | July 2012

Law’s paradoxical attitude toward the emotions is on full display in the realm of criminology. This is a field that has long been intimately concerned with the passions that lead to crime and the passions that animate punishment (Durkheim famously declared that “passion is the soul of punishment”). Indeed, as one contributor to this volume observes, it is a field in which the scholarly debates about crime and punishment seethe with outrage. Yet, as Susanne Karstedt observes in her excellent introduction, criminologists tend to view emotions with suspicion. They are prone to regard them as unruly forces to be contained or ignorant reactions to be educated, but not as a part of human behavior to be studied and evaluated. To heighten the peculiarity of this blind spot, criminology has recently taken an explicitly emotional turn, focusing on the therapeutic needs of victims, the deployment of shame, and the practice of restorative justice. But even this strand of criminology tends to veer away from exploring actual emotional dynamics, instead relying on simplistic assumptions about the emotions it sets out to elicit or channel. Where traditional criminology errs by treating emotions as destructive forces it must tamp down, this discourse is prone to the opposite error: treating emotions as moral demands to which the legal system must acquiesce.

Emotions, Crime and Justice is a major step toward a more theoretically and practically nuanced conversation. As this book reveals in a series of original essays of great range, depth and sophistication, criminology has much to gain by investigating the emotions underlying crime and punishment. The collection spans a range of theoretical, ethnographic and experimental approaches, a range of criminal justice institutions and roles, and a range of cultures (indeed, for many U.S. readers, one of the pleasures of this volume will be the opportunity to become immersed in the criminology literature of the U.K., Australia and New Zealand; all but four of the twenty-two contributors are from non U.S. common law countries). Perhaps its greatest strength lies in the range of emotional experience it reveals and explores, including the emotions that accompany violence and that animate attitudes toward crime, the emotional experience of obeying or resisting the law, the implicit rules governing the display or feeling of emotions by employees of police departments or prisons, the emotional roots of collective violence and collective reconciliation, and the moral sentiments and public emotions animating democratic discourse on crime and punishment.

I will describe the first two sections in some detail to convey some sense of the volume’s concerns. The first of the book’s five parts, “Emotions in Transgression and Crime,” explores the emotional experience of crime for perpetrators, victims and the public. Studying violence by stripping it of its affective dimension might seem counterproductive, given the enormous role emotion plays in motivating action. Yet as contributor Willem de Haan cogently observes in his essay on making sense of senseless violence, criminologists have shown little interest in the affective aspects of violent crime, focusing almost exclusively on identifying and quantifying causal links between crime and background factors. De Haan observes that violence is a dynamic, idiosyncratic process. He argues that researchers must supplement statistical correlations with explorations of what it feels like to be a perpetrator, and also with more specific inquiry into the dynamics accompanying various types of crime (this topic is also taken up by Randall Collins in his study of escalating violence in what he calls “forward panics.”) The complementary question is addressed by contributors Adam Calverley and Stephen Farrall: what does it feel like to desist from crime? What are the emotional dynamics that drive the decision to walk away? As this essay and many others in the volume demonstrate, emotions are rarely private and internal; they are best understood as dynamic processes shaped within the context of families, social networks and institutions.

This part also yields new insights on well -mined topics like fear of crime (from Wesley Skogan in his very useful empirical piece, and from Anna King and Shadd Maruna in their chapter on moral indignation toward youth). It also begins a fascinating thread about the nature and uses of shame. John Braithwaite, who famously rehabilitated shame and helped create the restorative justice movement in his Crime, Shame and Reintegration, here revisits the emotion with coauthor Eliza Ahmed. They argue that although the debate about the role of shame in criminal justice has become more nuanced since its early polarized days, the debate about the role of pride and self-esteem (particularly in the prevention of delinquency) has not reached the same level of maturity.

Part II, “Emotional Experiences of Justice,” is perhaps the strongest in the volume—though the bar is high. This part sheds new light on many of the central debates in criminology and criminal law. For example, one influential tenet of punishment theory asserts that the urge for vengeance is deeply rooted (or in more recent parlance “hardwired”) and that therefore it follows that state-sanctioned punishment should reflect and to some extent satisfy this urge. Much of this debate has occurred on a theoretical or anecdotal plane, although there is an increasing body of empirical work investigating the psychological and neurological bases for the urge to punish. However, important questions remain about the role of government and other institutions in influencing these urges and how they are expressed. This is a salient issue in the study of the death penalty for example—a punishment that this primarily non-U.S. centered book does not touch upon. The criminologist Vanessa Barker wrote a revelatory article in 2006 comparing two U.S. jurisdictions whose attitudes toward punishment developed along markedly different tracks. In this volume (Part V), John Pratt’s discussion of penal developments in New Zealand takes a similar path, demonstrating that punitive public emotions are not inevitable; that much depends on cultural values, governmental structure, and specific initiatives (such as victim compensation schemes that decrease a sense of powerless victimization).
One of the strengths of this collection is its ability to move beyond vague generalities about vengeance, empathy, shame and restorative justice into concrete inquiries about the operation of emotions in specific contexts. Lawrence Sherman and Heather Strang note that the primary task of justice is not simply to reflect emotion but to manage it. While it may not be possible to prove or disprove the existence of an inborn instinct for vengeance, it is possible to test whether such an instinct is affected by nurture—for example by institutions that increase empathy for an offender—and Sherman and Strang conduct experiments suggesting that such an effect is achievable in a properly constructed restorative justice conference setting. Meredith Rossner examines conflicting data on the efficacy of restorative justice, particularly when race is taken into account, and studies the elements of a successful restorative justice conference—arguing that it is a ritual that requires certain ingredients. She and contributor Nathan Harris also fruitfully revisit the question of shame’s role in reintegration.

This section also sheds light on the question of why people obey the law and how we might encourage them to do so. Pioneering work by Tom Tyler and others on perceptions of procedural justice suggests that people are more likely to obey the law if treated with respect, trust, fairness and neutrality. Researchers are now looking closely at the emotional dynamics of this process, asking what emotions are elicited by procedural fairness or unfairness, how the experience might differ across racial and ethnic lines, and how the cycle of disrespect and distrust might be broken. For example, Kristina Murphy’s contribution examines the cycle of anger, outrage and resentment at unjust actions, leading to a desire for retribution and blame, and reasonably suggests that the more we understand such cycles, the more likely we are to be able to short-circuit them.

The final three sections continue to reward close reading, though their structure tends to be less cohesive. Part III, “Emotion Work in Criminal Justice Institutions,” follows the path of Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart, which explored implicit workplace expectations on the feeling and display of emotion, in two contexts: Bas Van Stokkom’s piece on policing and Elaine Crawley’s on guarding prisoners (particularly elderly sex offenders, who elicit strong and difficult-to-manage emotions). As Hochschild argued over a quarter century ago, emotion cultures exist and thrive in every organization, and by failing to study their dynamics we deprive ourselves of essential knowledge about how to improve our institutions. These contributions also draw on more recent literature from Daniel Goleman and others on emotional intelligence. The message is hopeful. Once we understand the emotional dynamics that help determine whether criminal justice institutions are effective, there are tools at our disposal for reforming those dynamics where necessary.

Part IV, “Violence, Reconciliation and Conflict Resolution: Dealing with Collective Emotions,” considers collective violence, conflict and peacemaking. Thomas Scheff, whose work helped define the field of the sociology of emotion and who has written prominently on collective shame, here explores the role of emotions in ethno -centrist collective violence. As he observes, psychological explorations of collective violence tend to be largely descriptive, identifying an us/them attitude as a major root of evil, but failing to delve into how the individual and collective dynamics of the violence unfold and gain momentum. Scheff explores the emotional conditions for intergroup hatred. John Brewer also takes up the topic of communal violence, offering an astute critique of Scheff’s transposition of restorative justice techniques from the context of individual criminal cases to the context of responses for collective violence.

Part V, “Democracy and Penal Sentiments,” contains a new and germane look at Hume’s theory of moral sentiments and its application to contemporary criminology (Richard Sparks), Pratt’s aforementioned discussion of the penal attitudes of New Zealand, and a highly satisfying concluding article by co-editor Ian Loader. Loader critiques the common approaches to resolving the role of public passions in shaping penal policy: the cognitive deficit model, which assumes that people simply need more information to displace their misinformed passions, and the insulation model, which assumes that public passions are dangerous and need to be buffered by bureaucracies. As Loader advocates, criminal justice scholars ought to begin from the assumption that emotion is an inevitable component of crime and punishment. Once the moral sentiments and passions of citizens are acknowledged, they can be opened up to scrutiny and evaluation in light of the considered goals of the criminal justice system.

This is an excellent game plan. The conversation can be further advanced by increasing cross-cutting across disciplines and across cultures. The question of emotion’s role in criminal justice, in the legal system, and in governance more generally is one that demands an interdisciplinary approach. Although disciplinary silos are a problem in any field, the emerging field of emotion theory is at an important juncture. Fascinating work is underway in a range of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, cognitive neuroscience, anthropology, criminology and of course philosophy (and as Richard Sparks observes, many of the distinctions among disciplines we take for granted are fairly recent in origin). Much of this work is occurring on parallel tracks. Emotion theory does not fit neatly within traditional disciplines, and there are few established sites for emotion theorists to come together across disciplines—or, for that matter, across borders. The need for cross-cultural interchange is equally apparent. Emotion theory is, at last, moving away from its tendency to study emotion as an individual, internal phenomenon, and toward a far more sophisticated set of research questions about the reciprocal relationship between emotions and social, institutional and governmental structure. There is much more to learn about how these dynamics unfold, not only in a variety of institutional contexts, but across social, cultural and national boundaries. These are questions that ought to keep scholars occupied for quite some time. For a rich and provocative introduction to the field, read this book.

Susan A. Bandes is a Distinguished Research Professor at DePaul University College of Law

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