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Latest update: October 14, 2000

Constitutive Criminology: Henry and Milovanovic

On Tuesday, 10 Oct 2000, Charlie Notess opened a new Academic Discourse Theme:

HI ,

I am sending this to two busy people,Jeanne and Hal, with the hope that you might find a few minutes to scan and let me know if I am on the right track, interpreting the new jargon for one who never had a course in criminal justice.

If you do not have the time, perhaps a student assistant might be interested.


Modern criminology was based on the assumption that social norms specify expected behaviors and that actions that did not follow norms were deviant and/or criminal. The deviant or criminal was expected to be responsible for his behavior. If harm was done, the deviant was responsible for violating the norm.

Postmodern criminology is based on the added assumption that the ambient culture within a society, the social context, can drive a person to violate norms. Postmodern criminology then asks the question was the harm that occurred the responsibility of the culture? In some cases, the person is driven or compelled to deviate from a norm, because s/he had no better choice. A policeman can be in a situation that includes a gunman who is aiming to kill. If the cop shoots the gunman is he a murderer or was he driven to that act by a complex of norms relevant to the situation?

Henry & Milovanovic, in "Constitutive Criminology at Work", on page 7 say: " [Constitutive Criminology] rejects the argument of traditional modernist criminology that crime can be separated from that process and analyzed and corrected apart from it." In an earlier sentence they say: "The core of our constitutive argument is that crime and its control cannot be separated from the totality of the structural and cultural contexts in which it is produced". Crime is a result of individual human responses together with the social and organizational norms and structures that people develop and endlessly rebuild.

Postmodern perspectives consider that each individual works toward developing a coherent self image or conception of self. The social and organizational context, which includes the commonly accepted vocabularies and language patterns, guides and restricts such development.

As an example, a wife who is continually beaten and otherwise abused by her husband was considered, in some societies, to deserve what she got because the husband had power over his wife. Our society is now moving to redefine (reconstruct) the language, law, and norms pertaining to such abuse so that the woman has equal rights. Yet, when a woman who resorts to prostitution because she can find no other way to support her child, is abused by a man, she is still evaluated according to different norms, laws, and language than the abused wife. Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" leads the reader to consider how a crime is defined in terms of the situation or context by the way society treated Jean Valjean for stealing to feed his family.

Narrative therapy aims " enable offenders to construct more liberating life narratives and thereby reconstitute" their self concepts. In my thinking, the term reconstituting is a key here. One's ideas and perceptions of reality and the image of one's rights and responsibilities are reconstituted. This reconstituting changes how "crime" and violation of "norms" are perceived. This, I believe is where the term constitutive criminology comes from.

In some cases, rather than interpreting a sequence of events as a criminal violation of a norm, a new interpretation might start the sequence of events earlier and include consideration of the impact a set of norms has upon a person and his/her self concept. Then one can judge the extent to which the set of norms creates a set of unfair or blocked opportunities, or generates a set of impractically high aspirations, either of which can lead a frustrated individual to deviate from these impractical and unfair norms (expectations), as a last resort. Such a process is what I see as reconstitutive social change. Such change is needed in our society in areas ranging from criminal justice design to television advertising and presentation of consumption-oriented display.

I believe that the Search Institute's concept of a Developmental Assets checklist would contribute a small part to defining unfair child-rearing by family and neighborhood community. If you are unfamiliar with the 40-Assets Checklist, click on:

Charlie Notess

On Saturday, October 14, jeanne responded:

Charlie, how wonderful of you to share your thoughts with all of us. And what a wonderful thing for students to recognize that their professors go on tackling new information.

I was particularly impressed with your linking constitutive criminology to community work with youth. The Search Institute Site is a good one for many of our students who like the emphasis on community work.

salud y paz, jeanne