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Feminist Critique of Classical Criminology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 5398 words Published: 2nd Aug 2018

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The feminist critique of classical criminology has focused first on the marginalization of women in its studies and secondly on the contention that when women are studied, it is in a particularly limited and distorting fashion. Attempts to construct a distinctly feminist criminology have been made with use of methodologies including empiricism and standpoint theory. However, these theories have received criticism for their essentialist assumptions and universal claims. The feminist criminological theories detailed in this opinion have resulted from these criticisms and focus on postmodern ideas which consider more carefully how categories of identity are constituted and how power relates to knowledge. Particular attention will be given to the impact of Foucauldian notions of normalisation and disciplining power on the explanations of female conformity and deviance. Discourses on hegemonic masculinity which have grown from feminist epistemologies and methodologies will also be addressed.

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For every one hundred males convicted of serious offences there are only 18 females so convicted. Age and sex remain the best predictors for crime and delinquency – better than class, race or employment status.(heidensohn, 1995, p143) [1]. The discipline of criminology has been increasingly criticised by feminists and pro-feminist writers for its lack of gender analysis. As Ngaire Naffine has asserted, the costs to criminology of its failure to deal with feminist scholarship are perhaps more severe than they would be in any other discipline.(Naffine, p6) [2] The reason being that the most consistent and prominent fact about crime is the sex of the offender. As a rule, crime is something that men do, not women, so the denial of the gender question – and the dismissal of feminists who wish to tease it out – seems particularly perverse.(Naffine. 1996, p6) [3] 

The field of literature on criminology would suggest that it is a discipline of academic men studying criminal men and, at best, it would appear that women represent only a specialism, not the standard fare. .(Naffine. 1996, p1) [4] Similarly feminism as a substantial body of social, political and philosophical thought, does not feature prominently in conventional criminological writing. Feminism in its more ambitious and influential mode is not employed in the study of men, which is the central business of criminology. The message to the reader is thus that feminism is about women, while criminology is about men. (Naffine. 1996, p2) [5] Naffine has stated, the neglect of women in much mainstream criminology has, therefore, skewed criminological thinking in a quite particular way. It has stopped criminologists seeing the sex of their subjects, precisely because men have occupied and colonised all of the terrain. (Naffine. 1996, p8) [6] 

Traditional criminology which has sought to explain female criminality has been almost summarily rejected by feminists. The feminist critique of classical criminology was inaugurated by Carol Smart who rejected the biological positivist account of criminality propounded by Lombroso and Ferrero. Smart contended that the common stance, which unites classical theorists, is based upon a particular misconception of the innate character and nature of women, which is in turn founded upon a biological determinist position.(Smart. 1977, p27) [7] The emphasis on the determined nature of human behaviour, asserted Smart, is not peculiar to the discipline of criminology, or to the study of women, but is particularly pertinent to the study of female criminality because of the widely-held and popular belief in the non-cognitive, physiological basis of criminal actions by women. [8] 

Feminist criminologists sought to rectify the inadequacies of traditional criminology through new methodologies and research. Two of the earliest and most prominent schools of thought were feminist empiricism and standpoint feminism.

Much of the early writing of feminists in criminology assumed the methods and assumptions of empiricist criminology. The concern of these early feminists was that women had been left out of the research of scientists and the result was a necessarily skewed and distorted science. [9] It accounted for men and explained their behaviour in a rigorous and scientific way, but it did not account for women, though it purported to do so. Feminist criminologists pointed out the blatant sexism of this double standard and argued that women and men should receive the same scientific treatment. Harding labels this method of thought ‘feminist empiricism’. [10] To feminist empiricists, scientific claims are thought to be realisable, but have not yet been realised in relation to women. Feminist empiricists alleged that classical criminologists had not considered the effects of their own biases and preconceptions on their work: on what they chose to do, how they did it, and what they made of it. [11] Thus feminist empiricists endeavour to develop a scientific understanding of women as the missing subjects of criminology, to document their lives both as offenders and as victims. They raise objections to the empirical claims made about women, when those claims are based on meagre evidence, with a good sprinkling of prejudice. [12] 

Naffine has suggested that the principle shortcoming of feminist empiricism is its tendency to leave the rest of the discipline in place, unanalysed and unchallenged. [13] The underlying assumption is that criminology is somehow competent and impartial when it is not dealing with women and so the gendered nature of criminal law and the criminal justice system remains unexamined. The empirical methods and the epistemological assumptions of traditional criminology are generally allowed to stand, as are its understandings of men. Feminist empiricism, therefore, fails to ask about the significance of institutions which have been organised around men. [14] 

Another feminist criminology which was constructed from the critique of classical theory was standpoint feminism. Standpoint feminism contended that criminology’s continuing preoccupation with the viewpoint of men was a function of power. For standpoint feminists, the solution to criminology’s ignorance of women’s experiences was to turn to women themselves and seek their own accounts of the criminal experience. As Carol Smart has observed:

…the epistemological basis of this form of feminist knowledge is experience…feminist experience is achieved through a struggle against oppression; it is, therefore, argued to be more complete and less distorted than the perspective of the ruling group of men. A feminist standpoint then is not just the experience of women, but of women reflexively engaged in struggle. In this process it is argued that a more accurate or fuller version of reality is achieved. This stance does not divide knowledge from values and politics but sees knowledge arising from engagement. [15] 

Thus the adoption of the standpoint of women is fundamentally a moral and political act of commitment to understanding the world from the perspective of the socially subjugated. It assumes that the identity of the subject matters; the epistemological site of the woman from below provides better insights into her condition. Thus, standpoint theorists attempt to close the gap between the knower and the known. [16] 

Pat Carlen has made use of standpoint theory in her research seeking to invest the female offender with the sort of rationality and purpose which had previously only been found in the male offender. [17] Carlen took an unusual step by literally making the ‘criminal women’ who formed the subject of her study the authors of their own stories. [18] One of Carlen’s stated purposes was to make us realise that the criminality of women is ‘serious and intentional’. [19] Other standpoint theorists have suggested that the viewpoint of women provides a more secure grasp of certain aspects of reality, particularly the realities of disadvantages and political oppression than the standpoint of men. Standpoint theory can also be used effectively to highlight the injuries done to women as victims of crime. Standpoint feminism is by its nature democratic, its subversive potential does not depend on the academic credentials of the author. [20] 

Despite the contribution of standpoint theory to feminist criminology critics of this methodology have not failed to highlight its manifest inadequacies. These inadequacies include a lack of constituency and the tendency of standpoint feminism to universalise the category ‘woman’.

These are the questions which standpoint feminism has no clear answer to. The notion of a woman’s standpoint, the suggestion that women as a category possess a particular and superior view of the world, is necessarily to select just one of the many viewing points from which women look on the world, and then to impose that one view on all. [21] These criticisms and others have been highlighted most eloquently by black and Third World feminists.

Marcia Rice has taken issue with mainstream feminist criminology accusing it of being blind to its own essentialising tendencies.

Given the history and theoretical objectives of feminist criminology, one might have assumed that the monolithic, unidimensional perspectives employed by traditional theorists would have been abandoned for a more dynamic approach. [22] 

However, Rice contends, almost without exception, feminist criminological research from 1960 to the present has focused on white female offenders. Sexist images of women have been challenged, but racist stereotypes have largely been ignored. [23] While there has been some acknowledgement that black women are not dealt with in the same way as white women, no research has been carried out which compares the sentences of black and white women. [24] This is an important point as a failure to consider the potentially different experiences of black women may invalidate the research findings. Race may be as important as gender, if not more so. [25] 

Rice has also criticised the perceived assumption in much feminist criminological writing that all women are equally disadvantaged. For example O’Dwyer, Wilson and Carlen write: ‘Women in prison suffer all the same deprivation, indignities and degradations as male prisoners. Additionally they suffer other problems that are specific to them as imprisoned women.’ [26] Rice contends that this statement is inadequate as it stands. It fails to acknowledge the added problems of the isolation of and discrimination against black women. Bryan et al, for example, point to the fact that a higher percentage of black than white women in prison are on prescribed psychotropic drugs. [27] This requires explanation. Furthermore, many black women serving long sentences are not indigenous but are from West Africa and are serving sentences for drug offences. These groups of female prisoners in Britain are often awaiting deportation and have special needs; for example, contact is usually severed with their families and there are problems of communication. [28] 

Thus, asserts Rice, feminist criminologists have developed a theoretical approach which emphasises the significance of patriarchal oppression and sexist ideological practices. The main problem with this is that, in assuming a universal dimension of men’s power, this approach has ignored the fact that race significantly affects black women’s experiences in the home, in the labour market, and of the criminal justice system. [29] 

Criminologists have responded in many ways to the concerns of standpoint theorists. The responses focused on in this essay are those which pursue the intellectual problems generated by standpoint theory, and so consider more carefully how categories of identity are constituted and how power relates to knowledge.

An examination of female criminality and unofficial deviance suggests that we need to move away from studying infractions and look at conformity instead, because the most striking thing about female criminal behaviour on the basis of all the evidence is how notably conformist to social mores women are. [30] 

Increasingly feminist criminologists have turned to postmodern (and poststructuralist) explanations of the way power and knowledge intersect to interrogate normalisation techniques and women’s social and legal conformity. Many of these theories and methodologies have been based on the work of influential French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault has argued that disciplinary power acts on the individual body in order to render it more powerful, productive, useful and docile. Foucault’s genealogies seek to give an account of how our ways of thinking and doing dominate and control us. [31] In modern society disciplinary power has spread through the production of certain forms of knowledge, such as the positivistic human sciences, and through the emergence of disciplinary techniques of surveillance, and examination which facilitates the process of obtaining knowledge about individuals. Disciplinary practices create the divisions healthy/ill, sane/mad which by virtue of their authoritative statuses can be used as effective means of normalisation. [32] Disciplinary power secures its hold by created desires, attaching individuals and their behaviour to specific identities, and establishing norms against which individuals and their behaviours and bodies are judged and against which they police themselves. [33] Prevailing notions of identity and subjectivity are maintained and created not through violence or active coercion but by individual self-surveillance.


There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end up by interiorising to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual this exercising their surveillance over, and against himself [34] 

Forms of knowledge such as criminology, psychiatry and philanthropy are directly related to the exercise of power, while power itself creates new objects of knowledge and accumulates new bodies of information. Foucault’s interpretation of disciplinary power has allowed feminist criminologists to exact a resounding critique on feminisms which have utilised structural accounts of patriarchal power. It has also prompted these criminologists to interrogate the diverse relationships that women occupy in relation to the social field consisting of multiple sites of power and resistance.

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Feminists have used Foucault’s analytics of power to show how the various strategies of oppression around the female body – from ideological representations of femininity to concrete procedures of confinement and bodily control – are central to the maintenance of hierarchical social relations. [35] A pertinent example of feminist criminological research which has uncovered the use of panoptic techniques on women has been done by Pat Carlen who interviewed 15 Scottish sheriffs on their handling of women who were charged and imprisoned for criminal offences. [36] Carlen observed the considerable degree of embarrassment in the sheriff’s feelings when a woman appeared in court as accused. They seemed to feel uneasy first because they knew that the women were being dealt with in a highly inappropriate penal tariff system to which they could not respond and second because of the women’s role as mothers. The conflict was resolved by the sheriffs differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothers. ‘The sheriffs then redefine the prison to which the women are sent with all the appropriate paraphernalia of security and restraint, as a comfortable place, suitable for a spot of kindly paternal discipline’ (emphasis added). [37] Thus disciplinary power works to examine, diagnose and reform criminal women whilst the sheriff fulfills the role of normalising judge.

Colin Sumner has provided an insightful exposition of Foucauldian normalisation in his work on gender and the censure of deviance. [38] Normalising power works through the norm, which is ‘a mixture of legality and nature, prescription and constitution’, [39] to produce ‘a physics of a relational and multiple power, which has its maximum intensity not in the person of the King, but in the bodies that can be individualised by these relations.’ [40] It does not replace law, rather law is subsumed: the law operates more and more as a norm, the judicial institution is increasingly incorporated into a continuum or apparatuses whose functions are for the most part regulatory. [41] Discipline supports law, by its system of micro power and neutralises counter-power or resistance with the principle of ‘mildness-production-profit’ rather than the levy of violence. Normalisation involves, then, a combination and generalisation of panoptic techniques subsuming other forms of power. [42] Examples of the practical implications for women who transgress the norms of sex-role expectations can be found in research which details the excessive harshness of the courts when dealing with women offenders. [43] Women defendants seem strange and less comprehensible than men: they offend both against society’s behavioural rules about property, drinking, or violence and also against the more fundamental norms which govern sex-role behaviour. The differentiation between the sexes is scaled to protect girls from themselves, but it allows boys to be boys. [44] 

Thus through techniques of normalisation, a complex composition of hegemonic, and therefore social, censures emerged and, eventually, became the foundation of positivist and administrative forms of criminology. [45] Normalisation is presented as a strategy which produces a disciplined individual who is normally so unaware of the place of individualisation in the general strategies of domination that s/he operates within the illusion of a rationalistic voluntarism, while performing the economic, political, sexual and ideological roles required by sustained capital accumulation and bourgeois hegemony. [46] 

Despite its appeal to and appropriation by many feminists, Sumner has criticised Foucault’s concept of normalisation for glossing over the role of the censure of women and femininity in the hegemonic ideologies constituting the political and economic role of the state. [47] Indeed, Sumner contends, the formation of the modern subject is a profoundly gendered process, as indeed is the formation of the modern state. Modern social censures and forms of social regulation are fundamentally gendered. [48] As Catherine MacKinnon has said:

The state is male in a feminist sense…The liberal state coercively and authoritively constitutes the social order in the interests of men as a gender, through its legitimising norms, relation to society, and substantive policies. [49] 

Sumner criticises the lack of analysis of men’s domination, patriarchy and hegemonic masculinist ideologies in Foucault’s understanding of the concepts of right, justice, contract and agency. [50] The state form itself is profoundly masculine in that its fundamental organising concepts, institutions, procedures and strategies are historically imbued with, and are themselves descriptive of, an ideological notion of masculinity that is hegemonic; and that this hegemonic masculinity which contributes to the very form of state power, is not so much an effect of men’s economic power as an overdetermined historical condensation of the economic, political and ideological power of ruling-class men. [51] Thus, it must be observed that the normalisation process concomitant with capitalist development contains with it the censure of the feminine and of deviant masculinities. This censure is part of the dominant ideological knowledge that the powerful try to invest in the practices and thus the bodies of subjects. [52] 

This notion of hegemonic masculinity which Sumner highlights in his critique of Foucault is a growing area of criminological research which draws on feminist theory and postmodern critique and it seeks to interrogate the gender question behind the criminality of men. The study of masculinities in a criminological context was inaugurated by Australian criminologist Bob Connell. [53] 

one very important new topic is already on the agenda: masculinity…..If emphasis on gender is a key aspect of feminist work, then the further study of masculinity must be vital. Without it there will be no progress. [54] 

Criminologists seeking to realign the gender question within criminology have sought an understanding of the crimes of men through reference to a rather different conceptualisation of masculinity; not just that the crimes of individual men might be explained through reference to their masculinity, but rather the idea that society itself is presently experiencing what has been termed a ‘crisis’ of masculinity, a crisis made manifest in both the changing nature and extent of men’s criminality. [55] Criminology for so long the target of feminist critique as the apotheosis of a ‘masculinist’ discipline in terms of its epistemological assumptions, methodology and institutional practices, might at last appear to be addressing its very own ‘sex question’ by seeking to engage with the sexed specificity of its object of study – the fact that crime is, overwhelming, an activity engaged in by men. [56] The target of feminist critiques of the discipline which have emerged during the past 20 years has been with the nature of this recognition, the way in which the sex-specificity of crime has been conceptualised.

How is it possible to recognise the diversity of men’s lives whilst also recognising the existence of a culturally exalted form of masculinity? For Bob Connell the answer lies in the concept of hegemonic masculinity, which ‘is always constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities as well as in relation to women.’ [57] Central to hegemonic masculinity is the idea that a variety of masculinities can be ordered hierarchically. Gender relations, Connell argues, are constituted through three interrelated structures: labour, power and cathexis. What ‘orderliness’ exists between them is not that of a system but, rather, a ‘unity or historical composition’. What is produced is a ‘gender order’, ‘a historically constructed pattern of power relation between men and women and definitions of femininity and masculinity’. [58] The politics of masculinity cannot be confined to the level of the personal. They are also embedded in the gender regime, part of the organisational sexuality of institutions and society generally. [59] The construction of hegemonic masculinity as a unifying and all-encompassing ideology of the masculine envisages an image of men’s beliefs and interests which is then seen as somehow intruding ‘into the sacred realm of theoretical or institutional practices. [60] 

Criminology largely remains bifurcated around a man/woman axis in which general universal theories of crime causation have been taken to apply to men whilst the crimes of women are assessed from, or in relation to, the male norm. [61] Women have been seen as an aberration to this norm, to be as other, somehow less than ‘fully’ male. However, crucially, one result of this simultaneous focus on a) the individual offender and b) the constitution of men as the norm has been that the sex-class of men have themselves been separated out into two groups: the offending criminal man and the non-offending man. It has been feminist work, especially in the area of men’s violence’s, which has challenged the subsequent pathologising of the crimes of men that results from such a division, by seeking to explore instead what men may share, as opposed to the attributes of the individual criminal man. [62] Within mainstream criminology men considered to be ‘deviant’ or ‘pathological’ have been contrasted with the ‘normal’ and the ‘law-abiding’. Whilst some criminologists may have sought to blur this distinction, it is a bifurcation between different types or categories of men which nonetheless remains the norm of criminological discourse. It has been in seeking to understand this issue of what men may share that, in the work of the second phase criminologists writing from feminist and pro-feminist perspectives, the concept of masculinity has been seen to have had a particular, and rather different, heuristic purchase. [63] 

Despite the potential of the theory of a hegemonic masculinity to be an explanatory variable of crimes by men, there are conceptual limits to its appeal. Collier asserts that the concept of hegemonic masculinity is of limited use in seeking to engage with such a complex male subject. [64] What we are dealing with is really a description or a list of masculine traits, each conjuring up powerful images about men and crime. In theory, each of the characteristics associated with hegemonic masculinity could apply equally to women as to men. ‘Not all crime is to be explained by reference to hegemonic masculinity.’ [65] The concept of hegemonic masculinity has been used both as a primary and underlying cause of particular social effects and, simultaneously, as something which is seen as resulting from or which is ‘accomplished’ through, recourse to crime. [66] Not only does this reflect a failure to resolve fully the tendency towards universalism, it can also be read as tautological. [67] Thus, it is alleged, what is actually being discussed in accounts of hegemonic masculinity and crime is, in effect, a range of popular ideologies of what constitute ideal or actual characteristics of ‘being a man’.

Hegemonic masculinity does not afford a handle on the conflicts generated between material and ideological networks of power. Nor, importantly, does it address the complexity and multi-layered nature of the social subject. [68] 

Thus it would appear that despite the breakthroughs promised by research into masculinities they have been seen to face some of the same problems associated with early feminism: totalising discourse and essentialist claims. An adequate theory of masculinity which does not resort to totalising discourse and essentialist claims would be a welcome addition to criminological discussions of gender.

Feminist criminologists have long sought to highlight the manifest inadequacies of classical criminology’s ignorance and distortion of women and crime. Smart has contended that the biological determinist position propounded by Lombroso and Ferrero has promulgated a misconception of the innate character and nature of women. [69] Attempts to rectify this distortion were made through the use of feminist empiricism and standpoint feminism which endeavoured to garner women’s perspectives by turning to women themselves and seeking their own accounts of the criminal experience. However, these theories could not escape accusations of universalism and lack of constituency leveled by black feminists and postmodernists alike. Michel Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power has been used by feminist criminologists to explain both the social conformity of women and the constitution of deviant women’s identities in a social field consisting of multiple sites of power and knowledge. Feminist criminologists have used Foucault’s analytics of power to show how the various strategies of oppression around the female body – from ideological representations of femininity in classical criminology to concrete procedures of confinement and bodily control – are central to the maintenance of hierarchical social relations. A relatively new development in criminological theory which concerns the issues of gender has been the idea of hegemonic masculinity. Connell has characterised hegemonic masculinity as a gender regime of sorts which is part of the organisational sexuality of institutions and society generally. [70] Hegemonic masculinity captures the ideology of masculinity pervading theoretical and established practices. The critique of hegemonic masculinity has focused on its tautological implications, and the contention that it is merely descriptive of masculine traits and cannot be used to engage with a complex male subject. Despite these criticisms, discourse on masculinity is a step forward for feminists who have long lobbied for adequate analysis of the role of gender in the criminological discipline.


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