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The ethics of criminological engagement abroad

Criminological knowledge originating in the global North is drawn upon to inform crime control practices in other parts of the world. This idea is well established and most criminologists understand that their efforts to engage with policy makers and practitioners for the purpose of generating research impact abroad can have positive and negative consequences. Ideally, these knowledge transfer activities will positively address local and transnational problems and contribute to just outcomes. Sometimes however, the policies and practices they inspire may prove harmful.

An oft-cited example of criminology’s harm-generating potential involves the spread of ‘Broken Windows’ policing throughout Latin America. The embrace of this model by conservative politicians in many Latin American countries has in part been attributed to the efforts of high profile American criminologists to actively market it as a solution to the region’s crime problem. It is safe to assume that the intentions of its scholarly proponents were benevolent, but the model is nevertheless associated with increased police violence and the over-policing of the urban poor.

A third possibility is that attempts by criminologists to promote their research abroad may fail to generate any discernible impact whatsoever. A lack of impact might reasonably be described as an unfortunate outcome when it comes to criminal justice and security sector reforms in countries with poor human rights records. However, the example of ‘Broken Windows’ policing in Latin America indicates that limiting impact may actually be desirable when it comes to the exportation of criminological knowledge that is oriented towards enhancing the efficiency of state institutions of social control.

It is worth briefly contextualising this argument by reflexively considering how the ‘impact-agenda’ in higher education has come to shape the manner in which criminological knowledge is produced and disseminated. The analysis is rooted in the British experience, but many of the issues raised here are also pertinent to other contexts. The starting point is to acknowledge that it is increasingly difficult for scholars to maintain a separation between research activities intended to generate knowledge, and those that involve the dissemination of knowledge to research users.

Structurally, this dynamic reflects increased political pressures for the higher education sector to demonstrate its social utility if it wishes to retain its public funding. This, in turn, generates increased managerial pressures for academics to ensure that their scholarship is both topical and practical in its applications. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does create challenges.

 Image credit: What? by Véronique Debord-Lazaro. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
Image credit: What? by Véronique Debord-Lazaro. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

For criminologists, practical relevance often boils down to making research relevant and attractive to policy makers and practitioners. In fact, for researchers hoping to attract external funding, develop collaborations, and secure access to conduct research with criminal justice agencies, it is expected that they will actively incorporate knowledge co-production activities into various stages of the research process. Knowledge co-production can have important benefits for researchers and research users alike but it can also represent a potential threat to academic autonomy. Specifically, collaborations of this nature risk prioritising the attainment of specific outcomes over knowledge generating activities. They may even prove counter-productive with respect to the development of evidence-based policies by creating pressures for criminologists to generate evidence that serves to validate or support a pre-defined policy agenda or intervention.

In an age of research benchmarking exercises, it is also not enough for researchers to claim that their findings are policy relevant. Rather, they must actively seek out and create opportunities that will allow them to use their research to bring about measurable change. Countries in the global South may appeal to entrepreneurial-minded criminologists as ‘low hanging fruit’ because the legacy of colonialism and enduring global asymmetries ensure that many southern policy makers and practitioners continue to favour northern solutions to their problems of order, even if implementing these solutions is unfeasible or problematic. The fact that international organisations and NGOs are frequently willing to assist entrepreneurial criminologists with disseminating their proposals in the South further enhances the appeal of targeting these environments for impact. The strategic benefit of these collaborations is that they promise to equip criminologists with a level of political capital that far exceeds that which they enjoy in their home countries. In some cases, it even provides them with a means of influencing domestic legislation and policies without subjecting them to democratic scrutiny.

Democratic deficits aside, the main problem is that anticipating the potential implications of international knowledge transfer activities is inevitably difficult in cases where the researcher is a cultural and contextual outsider. Contextual ignorance may therefore restrict the ability of criminologists as social researchers to fulfil their ethical obligation to minimise harm. The principle of harm minimization has traditionally been associated with the knowledge production process, but as the boundaries between knowledge production and knowledge dissemination become increasingly fuzzy, criminologists must ensure that impact-oriented activities are also compliant with this principle.

The question is how might criminologists go about navigating this ethical minefield? Part of the answer involves shifting the focus of impact from achieving specific outcomes to facilitating deliberative processes. The primary goal of process-oriented research engagement is therefore to facilitate and contribute to better transnational dialogues that foster enhanced cross-cultural understandings of mutually relevant issues. This stands in contrast to those activities that aspire to translate a pre-determined model into policies and practices that address a pre-defined problem. The dialogues I refer to can take place in the public sphere or in private nodes of governance, but according to political theorist John Dryzek, they must be discursively representative, meaning that they are ‘authentic, inclusive and consequential.’ For criminologists and other social researchers, enabling these dialogues necessitates that they continuously exercise modesty, reflexivity and restraint during their travels around the world.

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