The 2018 Critical Criminology and Social Justice Conference hosted by the UNSW Centre for Crime, Law and Justice, 26-28 September, offered an engaging variety of presentations, and many had an important common ‘thread’: using social and criminological research as means of challenging the status quo.
One of the strongest messages about the importance of such research is the need to oppose the continued influence of colonialism upon the criminal justice system. A very powerful reminder about how this continues to be an issue that must be confronted, was the dialogue with the Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa people, who are the traditional owners of the Martu land in remote Western Australia, at the session on Indigenous Justice. The group shared personal stories about how many community members are frequently pleading guilty to a variety of offences, despite having no word or even concept of ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ in their culture and language. Similarly, the session on state crime demonstrated the how the theoretical framework of state criminality is an innovative way to expose the pervasiveness of colonialism - including as a facilitator of the atrocities in youth detention in the Northern Territory and as a cause of miscarriages of justice. This was a powerful reminder of why need we need research that calls for more than just tinkering at the edges of ‘white law’, and why we need to think big: to do research that will reform the colonial justice system in its entirety.
Another session highlighted other spheres where research can challenge the orthodox is in confronting flawed and simplistic criminal narratives used by the state: drug policy and terrorism. These areas of criminal law and policy are often governed by institutional bodies who are guided by simplistic narratives of ‘harm’ or the ‘innocent west’ verses ‘the evil other’. The presentations in these sessions demonstrated how speaking into this binary landscape with nuanced evidence-based research is a powerful platform to challenge the way certain crimes are hyper-politicised.
The ‘call to challenge’ at the conference was complemented by genuine discussions about the reality of how to utilise research to challenge accepted norms. The powerful opening plenary panel on Indigenous Research, Activism and Advocacy with members from the UTS Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research and creators of the ‘Sorry for Your Loss’ exhibition set the tone for the conference in this sense, by discussing innovative and multi-disciplinary ways to move research from the academic sphere and into the realm of advocacy. They shared ideas about how to employ non-traditional, creative and storytelling methods to present research in a way that forces social justice issues onto the public agenda. Similarly, the conference session on the collaboration between UNSW and the Dharriwaa Elders group located in Walgett in Northern NSW, focusing on how to use critical Indigenous, feminist, disability and criminology theory to facilitate community-led and holistic crime prevention programs. The panel of Leanne Dowse, Ruth McCausland and Peta MacGillivray highlighted the reality of research-based advocacy in this field: researchers can theoretically develop the best programs possible, but meaningful change will not occur unless researchers respect community self-determination and advocate for cultural support within key state institutions.
Conference presentations also addressed the ethical concerns and issues that can arise when engaging in critical and social justice focused research. A panel of researchers who work with or are members of communities who participate in criminalised activities – such as anarchists in Greece, undocumented migrants or sex workers – presented a confronting account of the difficulties researchers will face in seeking to ascertain knowledge that challenges norms and publish this work, while still maintaining support from the neo-liberal universities who ‘facilitate’ the research. Furthermore, the panel on Indigenous research ethics emphasised that research in this space must not be just ‘for research’s sake’ and must avoid a paternalistic ‘top down’ approach. Rather, research must for the benefit of the relevant community and must cultivate a culture that respects and empowers Indigenous people as the real owners of knowledge.
The closing plenary panel at the conference posed the big question: Where to from here? I think the way forward is to push boundaries and continually re-evaluate how to best use research to understand, advocate and liberate.
By Sophie Gresham: Intern, Centre for Crime Law and Justice