Changes in Society, Welfare, Penalty, Law, and Justice: Implications for the Future of Criminological and Socio-legal Theorising

16 May to 17 May

Coordinators: Stephen Farrall (University of Nottingham), Felipe Estrada Dörner (Stockholm University), Robert J. Sampson (Harvard University)

Description of the meeting

The dominant theories of offending developed by sociologists of the law, psychologists and socio-legal scholars (such as strain/anomie, self/social control, labelling, routine activities, rational choice, social disorganisation and subcultural theories) have embraced explanations of offending which focus on the individual offender, their deficiencies, and those of their families and local communities. Such theorising pathologizes individual offenders and fails to recognise the roles played by national- or state-level social and economic and criminal justice policies. However, recent research has pointed to processes of social and economic change as additional elements in the explanation of individual offending careers. For example, Neil and Sampson (2021) found that the historical era in which males in Chicago grew up was a large factor in their arrest histories. In Britain, another team found that national-level housing (Farrall et al 2019), schooling (Farrall et al 2020b) and social security policies (Gray et al 2022), and regional levels of economic restructuring (Farrall et al 2020b), helped to explain truancy from school and engagement in crime. Finally, a Swedish team reported that structural-level political and historical processes can modify individuals’ life courses (Nilsson et al, 2013, Bäckman et al, 2014 and Sivertsson et al 2021).

The discovery of the relationships between macro-economic and national-level social policies suggests that individual life-courses may (to a degree yet to be determined) be responsive to national-level developmental trajectories. As such, the idea from political science of national- or state-level path dependencies may resonate with ideas from sociology on the unfolding of life-courses (Elder, 1974).

This goal (of incorporating into criminal careers research a better understanding of the role of wider contexts) has recently started to be recognized as being absent from those debates and empirical studies in the sociology/psychology of the law and social-legal studies, which inform criminology. For example, Robert Sampson has noted that the idea of social change was one of the key elements that is missing from current research into criminal careers (2015:278–9). Similarly, the German sociologist Karl Ulrich Mayer noted that the ‘unravelling of the impacts of institutional contexts and social processes … on life-courses has hardly begun’ (Mayer 2009:426), adding that we know next to nothing about how the internal dynamics of life-courses and the interaction of developmental and social components of the life-course vary and how they are shaped by the macro contexts of institutions and social policies.

A key strength of our workshop will be the socio-legal approach which enables us to transcend individual-level theorising and to develop an understanding of offending in a broader sociological, political, economic and legal context. Our aim, therefore, is to reinvigorate the study of criminal careers by incorporating within this field’s epistemological framework, a wider and deeper understanding of macro-sociological, political and historical processes and how these can shape and modify both individuals’ life courses and engagement in crime. In so-doing, this will exemplify the strengths of socio-legal scholarship via the development of new perspectives on the ideas, institutions, and practices which shape criminal careers.


For more information: 

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