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Neo-liberalism and the Criminological Imagination

Following the work of American sociologist C Wright Mills (1959), for over a decade Dr Alana Barton and Dr Howard Davis have been exploring an expanded criminological imagination (Barton et al., 2007; Barton and Davis, 2015; 2018). They have argued that a ‘criminological imagination’ is required, both in terms of truly understanding crime and harm, and as a practical contribution to a transformative politics, challenging injustice and inequality. According to Barton and Davis, this is especially the case now as the fall-out from the financial crisis of 2007-8 has coalesced into a material and ideological war on the poor (Barton and Davis, 2013). They argue that:

“as welfare claimants are demonised, and the politics of exclusion outlaw, ‘other’ and vilify the poor as much as the ‘criminal’, seldom has it been more urgent for criminologists to understand the place of their empathic and politicised ‘craft’”.

(Barton and Davis, 2015:202)

A criminological imagination, the authors suggest, requires both an intellectual and empathic understanding of personal troubles around crime and harm as public issues. It demands an orientation to structureagency (and the self) and the relationships between them.

However, whilst the responsibilities of today’s criminologists include the education of those who will lead the discipline tomorrow, recent developments make this task increasingly difficult. Neo-liberal capitalism provides an increasingly destructive context for education in which learning is equated to narrow, tested ‘outcomes’, alarmingly remote from real understanding. Educational institutions, at all levels, may become driven more by fear of the next inspection or a fall in league tables than by education. Students for their part are encouraged to arrive at university concerned from the outset with the exchange value of their degree in the labour market. Deeply saturated in populist media and political representations of ‘crime’ their initial concerns and expectations may be less with academic debates around harm and justice, than with the narrow knowledge bases and ‘skills’ they are told that employers want.

Moreover, at just this point, where the expectations of ‘consumer students’ have narrowed, and ‘learning’ has become a commodity:

“As service consumer and producer respectively the student and the university are fast becoming mere numbers in education by spread-sheet, and in the anti-politics of the market. Notions that education should involve learning about society itself – its past, its present or its future, its unfairness’s, its dangers and its brutalities – or of the student’s own life and responsibilities within it, are fast becoming eccentric.”

(Barton and Davis, 2015:212)

Dr Barton and Dr Davis continue to explore representations of the poor and the ‘criminal’ in neo-liberal societies and the concept of the criminological imagination in times of austerity.


  • Barton, A. and Davis, H. (eds.) (2018) Ignorance, Power and Harm: Agnotology and The Criminological Imagination, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Barton, A. and Davis, H. (2015) ‘Neo-liberalism, higher education and anti-politics: The assault on the criminological imagination’, in J. Frauley (ed.) C. W. Mills and the Criminological Imagination, Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Barton, A. and Davis, H. (2013) ‘The politics of crime and the crimes of politics: Where does criminology stand in the “war on the poor”? European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control: Autumn Newsletter (Special 40th Anniversary Edition).
  • Barton A., Corteen K., Scott, D. and Whyte, D. (2007) (eds.) Expanding the Criminological Imagination, Cullompton: Willan.