Criminology in Practice

Matthews on ‘Value-Neutral’ Criminology

In this article Roger Matthews, editor of What is to Be Done About Crime and Punishment?, discusses ‘value-neutral’ criminology and the importance of developing a form of criminology that is both critical and useful.

I personally see little point in engaging in academic work that does not have some policy relevance. This does not mean that there is a necessity to produce detailed blueprints or ultimate solutions to social problems but that there is at least some level of take up and practical value to the work. As criminologists, we operate in a highly-contested area. That is what makes our work so interesting and why year-on-year more and more students study criminology. However, it seems strange to me that in an area so ridden with controversy that so many criminologists claim to be ‘value neutral’ and feel that they may compromise their objectivity if they express any kind of value judgement.

The reality is that all social scientific research is value laden, while facts do not speak for themselves. The social world has to be analysed, interpreted and assessed. As social scientists, we are in the business of interpreting human meanings, motivations and attitudes. This does not mean that in the process that our objectivity has to be compromised. For example, my own work on prostitution is based on the view that it is a damaging occupation and that the majority of women involved could lead more constructive and fulfilling lives. However, in the process of investigating the process of women leaving prostitution as a researcher I remain open to the counterfactual. That is, to evidence that might suggest that some women do not want to leave prostitution for various reasons or that the exiting process is in any way an easy or straightforward process.

Similar issues arise in relation to another area of interest – imprisonment. Imprisonment seems to have an uncanny ability to perpetuate itself despite evidence of its limitations. One common response to the apparent failure of prisons is to expand and reorganise them. In a period in which there is widespread overcrowding, poor conditions, recurring riots, drug related problems, and endemic violence it is difficult to know where to begin. Indeed, some have argued that the problems of imprisonment are so deep-seated that engaging in piecemeal prison reform is bound to be ineffective. These ‘abolitionists’ call for the complete removal of imprisonment as the dominant form of punishment. On the other hand, there are many commentators calling for a reduction in the number of people in prison and suggest that certain types of offenders – the mentally ill, drug users, juveniles, petty offenders and women – should not be sublet to imprisonment but rather subject to some other type of sanction. This raises another set of issues such as: what alternative sanctions are most appropriate? And relatedly: do they work?

Grappling with the complexities of prison and penal reform is difficult. What might work in one place may not work elsewhere. Thus, while in the USA and England and Wales are experiencing extensive overcrowding in the prison system, countries like the Netherlands are currently closing down prisons because they do not have enough convicted offenders to fill them. Thus, dealing with these complex issues requires a consideration of the context and cultural variations in different countries.

In sum, it is clear that we live in a highly contested and complex social world in which our values play a role in selecting the issues that we want to investigate, whether we recognise it or not. The task of this expanding industry is to harness these values and ideals and to develop a form of criminology that is both critical and useful.

Roger Matthews is Professor of Criminology at the University of Kent, UK. His main areas of interest and research include imprisonment, sex trafficking and prostitution, social theory, crime prevention and community safety. He is currently involved in an ESRC funded research project examining patterns of victimisation in the inner city.