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May 18, 2022


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This course, Questioning crime: social harms and global issues, introduces the concept of social harm as an alternative to the more familiar concept of 'crime' as a basis for studying aspects of the social world which are damaging or harmful. In doing so, it will encourage you to think critically about the strengths and limitations of criminology as a subject area.


This course, Questioning crime: social harms and global issues, introduces the concept of social harm as an alternative to the more familiar concept of ‘crime’ as a basis for studying aspects of the social world which are damaging or harmful. It moves beyond the assumption that actions which are against the law are necessarily the most harmful types of behavior and also questions the assumption that harms are limited to the actions of individuals. It encourages you to think more broadly about harm than the traditional focus on crime in both the academic subject of criminology and in culture more generally, which can obscure some of the most problematic and harmful aspects of contemporary societies. The course poses questions about ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘who’ in relation to harm and crime. It introduces you to debates about the responsibilities for these harms and whether and how they are criminalized, using three main examples to investigate these themes: Hurricane Katrina, imprisonment, and the ‘War on Terror’. Key issues that will be examined in understanding harm and crime are power, inequality, and global connectivities. These are used to examine how society acknowledges, accepts and debates ideas around crime and harm, and to encourage you to develop a critical understanding of the nature of crime and social harm along with the ability to question common-sense understandings of these topics. As a starting point, the role of power and inequality are central to recent debates about how criminology has – or needs to – determine its focus, and whether a different approach is needed. Traditional criminology has focused on the causes of crime, and on how crime patterns are measured, predicted or should be dealt with or reduced through policy measures. Over the last 50 years or so, though, critical perspectives have developed and become more prominent in criminology, and they have made issues of power and inequality central to their focus. According to these perspectives, a closer look is needed at the power of certain groups and institutions, notably the state, but also other powerful institutions including the media. Many of these newer criminological perspectives noted how the state and other institutions focus attention on less powerful groups, such as certain neighborhoods, social classes and age groups, and brought them into the criminal justice system. It was argued that states and others thus not only portrayed them as the main cause of crime but deployed resources to their criminalization. Thus these state and media processes were seen to criminalize certain groups and not others, while attention was argued to be deflected from the inequalities that shape the underlying social problems. Furthermore, through placing the spotlight on the power of these institutions, these newer perspectives argued that it revealed how the state and other powerful actors deflected attention from their own responsibility for addressing those underlying problems. More recently, a more radical alternative to criminology has come about in the form of zemiology, an approach that is continuing to develop. Zemiologists argue that we need to account for both criminalized and uncriminalised harms, including the harms inflicted by the criminal justice system and by international and globalized justice systems and practices as well. In particular, zemiology abandons the commitment to crime as the starting object of study. Instead, they focus on what is socially harmful regardless of whether it is criminal or not. Zemiological approaches also argue that its approach can better suggest policies that enable deeper forms of social justice The role of ‘the global’ is also central to these debates. Investigations, be they made through a crime or harm perspective, often reveal that what appears to be local concerns, are linked, for example, through states and corporations, to global processes. Through this course, you will examine how power and global relationships affect the ways that crime and harm are defined. For example, you will consider some ways that states and their criminal justice systems respond to crimes and/or ignore them. On the other hand, the role of states and justice systems – be they national, international or global in scope – in the creation of harm, will be considered too. The course thus teaches perspectives on how inequalities, including inequalities of power, are seen to underlie problems in society and to hinder the achievement of social justice.

Important: a warning about the nature and content of the course

As you might expect, in considering the case studies of Hurricane Katrina, the running of prisons, and the ‘War on Terror’, the ‘problems in society’ that you will be looking at are significant in scale, and they also have significant and traumatic implications for those affected by them. In turn, then, it is important at the outset of this course to note that some of the content may affect you too. Like many topics in the study of crime, justice and social harm, this course deals with topics that can be upsetting or distressing. The approach taken in this course is to look at such material analytically and to consider critically the ways in which these topics are commonly talked about or, for example, portrayed in the media. While we hope that you do not find the material to be directly upsetting or distressing, if you do find any of the content distressing, there are numerous sources of support available to you. These can be found in a later section in this course. In addition, this course presents a range of views, some of which you may disagree with. Nevertheless, being able to understand different perspectives is an important skill in the study of crime and justice. Hopefully, you will find that being able to consider competing for perspectives analytically will help to focus on these topics in ways that may help deflect from potential distress. You may find being able to understand these potentially distressing topics from different viewpoints helpful in dealing with them.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:
  • Understand the social harm perspective and its relationship to criminology
  • Critically examine the role of power, inequality and 'the global' in shaping crime and social harm
  • Apply learning of the social harm perspective to examples including 'natural disasters' such as Hurricane Katrina, as well as to imprisonment and the 'War on Terror'
  • Illustrate how instances of crime and uncriminalized harms are globally connected
  • Critically analyze power and inequality, including the roles of powerful actors such as states and multinational corporations, to examine debates about crime and harm.

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Open University UK