Theories of criminology: Postmodern criminology

Postmodern criminology questions traditional assumptions of criminology, emphasizing language, power, and social constructs in understanding crime and justice. This essay explores its origins, key authors, core ideas, impact, and crime prevention strategies.

Origins of Postmodern Criminology

Intellectual Foundations

Postmodern criminology stems from post-World War II developments in philosophy, literature, and social theory, critiquing modernist ideas and focusing on complexity, ambiguity, and subjectivity.

  • Poststructuralism: Thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida argued that language and knowledge are unstable and shaped by power relations.
  • Feminist Theory: Highlighted traditional criminology’s gender biases and marginalization of women’s experiences.
  • Deconstruction: Derrida’s method reveals contradictions in traditional concepts and binary oppositions.

Reaction to Traditional Criminology

Postmodern criminology reacted against traditional criminology’s deterministic and reductionist approaches, critiquing their reliance on empirical data and failure to address power, culture, and identity complexities.

Key Proponents and Their Contributions

Michel Foucault (1926–1984)

Foucault’s work profoundly impacted postmodern criminology.

  • Power and Knowledge: Foucault linked power and knowledge, showing how institutions produce knowledge to maintain power (e.g., “Discipline and Punish”).
  • Discourse: He examined how crime and deviance are constructed through language, criminalizing certain behaviors while normalizing others.

Jock Young (1942–2013)

Jock Young contributed significantly to postmodern criminology through Left Realism.

  • Critical Criminology: Critiqued traditional criminology’s inadequacy in addressing late modernity and fluid social identities.
  • Cultural Criminology: Emphasized culture, media, and symbolic meanings in shaping criminal behavior and societal responses.

Stuart Henry and Dragan Milovanovic

They developed constitutive criminology.

  • Constitutive Criminology: Crime and social order are co-constructed through language and interactions.
  • Fluid Identity: Emphasized fragmented and negotiated identities, challenging stable, coherent identity notions.

Bruce Arrigo

Arrigo explored intersections of law, mental health, and society.

  • Psychoanalytic and Postmodern Perspectives: Integrated psychoanalytic theory to understand unconscious processes shaping criminal behavior.
  • Critical Criminology: Critiqued traditional legal and mental health practices, emphasizing subjective experiences.

Core Ideas of Postmodern Criminology

Power, Knowledge, and Social Control

Emphasizes the interplay of power, knowledge, and social control, drawing on Foucault’s insights.

  • Panopticism: Explores societal use of surveillance and disciplinary mechanisms.
  • Biopower: Regulates populations through life and health management policies, including criminal justice.

Social Construction of Crime

Crime is seen as a socially constructed category, shaped by language, discourse, and power relations.

  • Discursive Construction: Crime results from discursive practices labeling behaviors as deviant or criminal.
  • Normalization: Establishes norms defining acceptable and deviant behaviors.

Fragmented and Fluid Identities

Challenges stable identity notions, highlighting fragmented and fluid identities.

  • Multiplicity of Selves: Individuals have multiple, overlapping, and conflicting identities.
  • Resistance and Agency: Individuals can resist and subvert dominant discourses and practices.

Deconstruction and Critical Analysis

Uses deconstruction to reveal biases and contradictions in traditional theories.

  • Deconstruction: Critically unpacks concepts and language to expose biases.
  • Critical Reflexivity: Encourages questioning and challenging established knowledge and practices.

Impact of Postmodern Criminology

Influence on Criminological Research

Introduced new theoretical and methodological approaches.

  • Interdisciplinary Approaches: Integrates insights from various fields.
  • Critical Methodologies: Develops methodologies exploring crime’s social construction.
  • Focus on Marginalized Voices: Includes marginalized perspectives in research.

Influence on Criminal Justice Policies

Informed inclusive, equitable, and critically informed policies.

  • Restorative Justice: Prioritizes healing and reconciliation over punishment.
  • Decentralization of Power: Promotes community-based approaches.
  • Critical Legal Reforms: Calls for reforms addressing systemic biases.

Criticisms and Limitations

  • Abstractness and Complexity: Difficult to operationalize.
  • Relativism: May undermine efforts to address social problems.
  • Potential Lack of Actionability: Focus on critique may lack actionable solutions.

Crime Prevention According to Postmodern Criminology

Emphasis on Social Justice and Equity

Prioritizes addressing root causes and systemic inequalities.

  • Addressing Structural Inequalities: Policies addressing poverty, racism, and gender discrimination.
  • Inclusive and Participatory Approaches: Involving marginalized voices in policy development.

Restorative and Community-Based Approaches

Emphasizes restorative justice and community engagement.

  • Restorative Justice Practices: Victim-offender mediation, community conferencing.
  • Community Engagement: Supporting community initiatives.
  • Decentralized Decision-Making: Involving community members in shaping policies.

Critical Media Literacy and Cultural Awareness

Promotes nuanced understandings of crime and justice.

  • Media Literacy Programs: Encourages critical analysis of media representations.
  • Cultural Competency Training: Enhances understanding of diverse cultural contexts.
  • Public Awareness Campaigns: Challenges harmful narratives and promotes inclusivity.

Modern Applications

Continues to influence contemporary strategies.

  • Critical Policy Analysis: Examines assumptions and biases in policies.
  • Collaborative Research: Involves diverse stakeholders.
  • Challenging Punitive Practices: Promotes restorative approaches over punitive ones.


Postmodern criminology has advanced our understanding of crime and justice, emphasizing power, knowledge, discourse, and identity. Through the work of scholars like Foucault, Young, Henry, Milovanovic, and Arrigo, it has influenced research and policies, prioritizing social justice, equity, and inclusivity. Despite criticisms, its contributions to crime prevention remain invaluable, offering critical perspectives for creating more just and equitable societies.