I was member on a panel a few months back to discuss the theme of ‘dark environments’. The panel was run by the Stout Centre for New Zealand studies and was part of their ‘Stranger than Fiction’ series. Each panel featured members from very different disciplines, and the idea was to see how different scholars made sense of various themes.
I figured I got my invite for the ’dark environments’ panel because I’m a ‘green’ criminologist who studies environmental harm. Semantics and all that. But it got me thinking about our discipline and how the concept of dark environments is meaningful to criminology in a bunch of different ways, but also how it serves as a useful reminder about what it is that we are charged with doing.
We study dark environments all the time: city streets where the lights go out; night-time economies and the illicit drug cultures that thrive there; silenced stories of sexual violence; redacted and archived abuses by the state; shady deals between traders at the borders; concrete fortresses at the edges of our cities and towns. One could go on.
The concept of dark environments is important in a particular way to green criminologists because so much of the harm our environment suffers is ‘in the dark’: unacknowledged, hidden, ignored. So much of it also lies ahead – at least, the evidence of it does. Part of our job involves telling stories about the dark, dystopian places of death, disease and destruction that we see coming.
It also seems that criminology is sometimes in a dark environment itself – unacknowledged, hidden and ignored. At least it seems so in New Zealand at the moment. Take our justice sector, for example. Officials prefers to work with scientists who write reports filled with quantitative ‘evidence’ and risk factor calculations. Stock standard criminological theories like strain, subcultures and social disorganisation barely cop a mention in said reports. The Minister’s ‘expert panel’ tasked with figuring out how to slow down New Zealand’s epic incarceration rate hasn’t got a single one of my department colleagues on it. Odd, given that a member of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, a lobby group with expertise in rustling up public fear about rising crime, has a seat.
I shouldn’t lament. The rest of the panel have been chosen wisely.
In any case, I am reminded of what our jobs are as criminologists by Michalowski (2016). He says we shouldn’t be bothered with ‘the crime problem’ but with the problem of crime. Our jobs are to tell uncomfortable truths about systems of power, and to call them out for their architecture of dark environments where people are left to struggle. To go into battle over meanings and to question why this social injury is the subject of social control when that one is not.
And, as Mathieson (2005) makes clear, none of this work is possible from inside the halls of power. He writes:
“…it is of vital importance to raise anew research as seen from below, taking as our point of departure the interests of those out of power rather than those in power, those who are repressed rather than those who repress, those who are governed rather than those who govern, those who lack channels of communication to and influence over decision-making bodies and institutions rather than of those who have such channels and, in fact, are these bodies and institutions” (Mathieson, 2005, p.78).
Where would criminology be without such critical inquiry? Perhaps the darkest place of them all – irrelevancy.
Mathiesen, T. (2005). Silently Silenced : Essays on the Creation of Acquiescence in Modern Society, Waterside Press.
Michalowski, R. J. (2016). What is crime? Critical Criminology, 24(2), 181-199.