Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously

Copson, Lynne (2021). Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously. In: Gordon, Faith and Newman, Daniel eds. Leading Works in Law and Social Justice. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 169–190.



Since the mid-twentieth century critical scholars within criminology, known broadly as ‘critical criminologists’, have critiqued the concept of crime, the criminal law, and the role of criminology for their role in reflecting and reinforcing social inequalities and power relationships. They have problematised the criminal justice and penal systems as means for realising justice and have advocated a shift in focus towards social justice as a more effective response to crime and deviance. However, in the early twenty-first century a new perspective emerged with the publication of Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously. This perspective, known as zemiology or a social harm approach, challenges criminology’s reliance on the language of crime for shaping understandings of, and responses to, social problems. This reliance, it is argued, fundamentally limits critical criminology’s ability to challenge state power and realise social justice.

In this chapter, I explore the contribution of Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously to shaping and challenging criminological theory and practice in the twenty-first century, whilst also highlighting its influence on my own research. In doing so the chapter highlights and draws on a tension that has emerged concerning zemiology’s relationship to critical criminology and specifically to what extent Beyond Criminology establishes a new and distinct field of study, rather than simply extending the field of critical criminology. This is a tension with which I have long been concerned in my own work (see Copson, 2011, 2016, 2018) but which, I argue, is essential for establishing the extent to which and the ways in which Beyond Criminology can be considered a leading work in the study of law and social justice. As such, this chapter presents a further extended exploration of this relationship.

The chapter begins with an overview of the work before moving to reflect on the context in which it has emerged. This involves exploring the intellectual roots of the ideas first introduced in Beyond Criminology and critically reflecting on their similarities with and divergences from previous contributions to critical criminology, specifically those of penal abolitionism and constitutive criminology. It then shifts to an assessment of the significance of the work in terms of setting a new distinct agenda in its own right, or expanding that of criminology, before considering the legacy of this contribution.

Drawing on my own research on the relationship between zemiology and criminology, as well as the connections between zemiology, criminology and utopianism, I argue that Beyond Criminology makes a significant contribution as a leading work in law and social justice by offering a ‘replacement discourse’ to that of crime. It is in this respect, I maintain, that the potential distinctiveness of this work can be found. However, without further theorisation of the concept of social harm, I argue, this contribution risks co-option as a discursive strategy within the discourse of critical criminology rather than the replacement to criminology it claims.

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