Criminal Questions, Colonial Hinterlands, Personal Experience: A Symptomatic Reading

Earle, Rod; Parmar, Alpa and Phillips, Coretta (2023). Criminal Questions, Colonial Hinterlands, Personal Experience: A Symptomatic Reading. In: Aliverti, Ana; Carvalho, Henrique; Chamberlen, Anastasia and Sozzo, Máximo eds. Decolonising the Criminal Question: Colonial Legacies, Contemporary Problems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 277–292.



In this chapter we consider the challenges and opportunities that a postcolonial practice might generate for analysis of offending, punishment, and desistance. We argue that there is methodological and theoretical merit in seeking to understand contemporary experiences of crime and offending through the lens of race and colonialism. While accepting that categorical or aetiological links between colonial dynamics and contemporary experiences of criminal justice may be hard to specify empirically, we suggest that our understanding of the relationship between race and crime can be enriched by connecting personal biography, criminological analysis and historical colonial experience. Specifically, we have found Althusser’s ideas about symptomatic reading (Althusser and Balibar 1970) to be particularly valuable in the approach we are adopting. Symptomatic reading is a strategy for interpreting the “latent content” behind the “manifest content” of a text, in this case our research interviews. Our approach suggests that if we want to appreciate the magnitude of race and racism in questions of crime, social order, and disorder a simple or “innocent” reading of the criminal question (Aliverti et al 2021) is not enough. The specific contribution of this chapter then, is to supplement and encourage diverse approaches to decolonising criminology through revisiting empirical studies, developing teamwork and collaborative analysis to better inform our understanding of otherwise obscured colonial dynamics.

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