Link to Birdie Calendar Henry and Milovanovic"s <i>Constitutive Criminology at Work</i>: Introduction

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Latest update: September 12, 2000
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Constitutive Criminology At Work

Review and Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of Peacemaking Identity Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, June 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

We chose this text because it offers studies of how Constitutive Theory has been applied in the last six years. This gives you an opportunity to look at praxis as well as theory. You will recognize many of the names connected with this text: Hal Pepinsky's praise for the text on the back cover, Bruce Arrigo's chapter on the homeless, Jim Thomas and Dragan Milovanovic's chapter on jailhouse lawyering, and T.R. Young's chapter on a constitutive theory of justice.

Defining Constitutive Criminology

"[C]onstitutive criminology redefines crime as the harm resulting from humans investing energy in harm-producing relations of power . . . . Crimes are no less than people being disrespected." (at p. 7) Note the difference here from traditional definitions of breaking laws or doing violence. Crime, for Stuart Henry and Dragan Milovanovic, is disrespecting people. Some of you may recall William Oliver's The Violent Social World of Black Men. He speaks of "disrespecting" as one of the primary causes of violence in the world of local bars and hangouts where men of the inner city are likely to gather.

Constitutive theory is a postmodernist perspective that redefines the world in terms of the many perspectives of which the modern world exists. In terms of criminology, we used to think about "law breakers." Postmodernism simply reminds us that the world is more complex than that in the twenty-first century. The voices of poverty and oppression have made themselves heard. We can no longer define crime in terms of the misdeeds of those who do not fit into our infrastructure. We must ask who does not fit, why do they not fit, and what about the infrastructure contributes to that lack of fit? Constitutive theory tries to ask and find alternative discourses for discussing these questions, so essential to the political, economic, and ethical issues we are facing now, and into the next decades.

Henry and Milovanovich make several important points they'd like us to get in their introduction.

  • Elitism and Arrogance Not Appropriate to Knowledge and Truth
  • "Postmodernists see rational throught as a form of elite power through which those who claim to have special knowledge earn the right to decide the fate of those who do not share this knowledge." (at p. 5) The claim that knowledge and truth is socially constructed is confusing to many of us. As one feminist writer wrote: logic is logic. Well, yes. But Henry and Milovanovic focus here on that aspect of truth which must remain socially constructed: the claim to "special knowledge," most often based in the late twentieth century on positivism, or objective scientific method, which then claims "elite" status, and oppresses those who "know" in different ways.

    It's not the use of logic or rational thought that is the problem. It's the "knowingness," of which Jonathan Lear speaks, that causes all the trouble. Scientific knowledge is one way to "know." But to claim it as the exclusive way of knowing is to lead to arrogance and elitism, just as "knowingness" leads to similar problems.