Grenfell: the unfolding dimensions of social harm

Tombs, Steve (2019). Grenfell: the unfolding dimensions of social harm. Justice, Power and Resistance, 3(1) pp. 61–88.


In the first hour of 14th June, 2017 a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, west London. The fire killed at least 72 people. It seems very likely that the acts and omissions which produced the fire will ultimately lead to some form of criminal prosecutions, perhaps of organisations, of individuals, or both, whether under fire or health and safety legislation or, indeed, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act. However, irrespective of whether or not the fire was a crime, we can draw upon the ‘social harm’ perspective to clearly identify a whole series of harms which both produced, and then were generated by, it. While the lens of ‘crime’ all-too-often restricts us to a ‘snapshot’ of an intentional act or acts, a social harm perspective allows us to incorporate omissions, decision and non-decisions taken, policies developed, defended and implemented, and practices and cultures established, over long periods of time – so that we can them think of these in combination in terms of conditions, states of affairs, incubating phenomena and triggering events, and chains of processes. These are relatively familiar arguments ‘for’ a social harm approach. But a novel contribution of this paper, and the organising logic of what follows, is to indicate the ability of a social harm lens to capture the range of harmful consequences that follow from any specific event; to capture the various dimensions of social harms; to explore how these unfold; to note that these unfold in ripples, initially and perhaps most intensely within a specific time and place – here, a burning tower – but then disperse geographically and longitudinally. Further, these harms do not exist nor unfold in a discrete sense – they are layered, they interact - often complexly – thus producing new or heightened levels of harm through their synergistic effects. In a sense, this paper is also an attempt to begin to think about ‘how harm works’.

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