Crime, government and civilization: Rethinking Elias in Criminology

10 May 2006

The placement of criminal law under the control of the public authority of the sovereign or the state has always been part of an attempt to civilize its operation, both restraining the workings of law on those inflicting particular kinds of harms, and rendering those workings, supposedly, more effective. However, the reconfiguration of the authority of the state in relation to criminal law since the 1970s has led most criminologists to reject the whole notion of a long-term civilizing process encompassing criminal law, turning instead to analyses of the inner logic of the various new responses to crime characterizing advanced liberal societies over the past three decades. This article outlines the major features of contemporary crime control and punishment identified within this approach: the transition from disciplinary modes of exercising power to ‘governing through freedom’, the emphasis on ‘designing out crime’ or actuarial justice, and the changed place of emotions in ‘affective governance’, including a turn to popular punitiveness. It then identifies some central empirical and conceptual problems shared by these accounts of contemporary crime control, and outlines the contribution that Elias’s work on long-term processes of civilization and decivilization can make not just to understanding the historical development of punishment, but also current developments across the whole field of criminal justice, focusing on the examples of restorative justice and popular punitiveness.