Zemiology, or the study of social harms, originated as a critique of criminology and the notion of crime
criminology. Zemiology gets its name from the Greek word "zemia", meaning harm. [Hillyard, P. (with C. Pantazis, S. Tombs and D. Gordon) (2004) "Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously", Pluto Press] The notion of social harm or social injury has existed for some time within criminology as a tool to broaden the interests of criminologists beyond individual based harms (theft, burglary etc) to incorporate harms caused by nation states and corporations [Schwendinger, H. and Schwendinger, J. (1970) "Defenders of order or guardians of human rights" Issues in Criminology] . More recently, these ideas have received more sustained attention from critical academics (neo-marxists, feminists) who have sought to create an independent field of study, separate from criminology, that studies the vast range of harms that effect individuals lives that are not considered to be criminal or are rarely criminalised (pensions/mortgage misselling, poverty, unemployment etc). [Hillyard, P. (with C. Pantazis, S. Tombs and D. Gordon) (2004) "Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously", Pluto Press] [Special Issue of Crime, Law and Social Change (2007, vol 48: 1-2)]
The Zemiological critique of criminology and crime
Hillyard and Tombs outline a number of criticisms of criminology and crime [ see chap 2 (2004) "Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously", Pluto Press] .
1 'Crime has no ontological reality' - Crime is a construct and is based on social judgements. However, there are no central properties that pertain to the notion of crime, therefore, what is a crime will vary across time and space.
2. 'Criminology perpetuates the myth of crime' - Criminology is based upon the notion of crime, which fails to adequately address the social construction of the concept. Therefore, criminology’s continued use of the notion within its frame of analysis perpetuates the myth that crimes are distinct acts that may be understood as separate social phenomena.
3. 'Crime consists of many petty events' - In a large proportion of reported crimes, the harms endured by victims, if there is one, is minimal. Hence Hillyard and Tombs argue, “the definitions of crime in the criminal law do not reflect the only or the most dangerous of antisocial behaviours.”
4. 'Crime excludes many serious harms' - Many events and incidents which cause serious harm are either not part of the criminal law or, if they could be dealt with by it, are either ignored or handled without resort to it. The undue attention given to events which are defined as crimes distracts attention from more serious harm (pollution, poverty, etc).
5. '‘Crime control’ is ineffective' - Hillyard and Tombs have argued that the methods and approach to crime control has patently failed. They believe the criminal justice system is unsuccessful in fulfilling its aims and in reforming criminal offenders. It appears that the criminal justice system sees there is only one solution to crime control, and that is a prison sentence, however it is questionable whether this actually resolves certain crimes in society.
6. '‘Crime’ gives legitimacy to the expansion of crime control' - Since the early 1990s, governments have emphasised crime control as a key concern, and crime control has increased faster than any other area of public expenditure. Consequently, security firms have increasingly sought to provide services to the burgeoning penal state. It is argued that these private interests have played a key part in the expansion of prison, as means to deal with social problems.
7. 'Contrasting ‘Crimes’' - The criminal law uses different tests to determine whether a crime has been committed. The principle test is the concept of mens rea – the guilty mind – which applies to the individual but not exclusively. However, these tests are not objective and often rely on subjective judgements about an individual’s actions. Mens rea has to be judged by proxy, examining both a person’s words and deeds. This becomes an even more complex task when applying the test an organisation, particularly as the harms caused by organisations result from the actions/inactions of a number of individuals and omission rather than intent. Therefore, harms caused by organisations are rarely criminalised.
8. 'Criminalisation and punishment inflict pain' - The criminal justice system has many stages which inflict pain in a discrete manner: defining, classifying, broadcasting, disposing and punishing the offender. Furthermore, these processes create wider social problems which bear no or little relationship to the initial crime and the original pain that was caused. For example, they may lead to loss of jobs, family problems or ostracism.
The Harms of the Criminal Justice System
Hillyard and Tombs argue that the criminal justice system fails to protect us from criminal harms whilst inflicting serious harms on those people who travel through the system. These harms often outweigh the harm caused by the original crime. However, current criminal justice policy within countries like the UK continues to champion the use of prison as means to deal with social problems. In 2002, the UK prison population was 80,144. The population rate, per hundred thousand of national population, for England and Wales was 139. These figures are high compared to the rest of Europe in terms of overall numbers; however, looking at prison population rate, they are similar to many other countries in Europe. Italy, Spain, France, Romania and Belarus each had prison populations of around 50,000 in 2001-2002. Only Poland and the Ukraine had prison populations higher than that of the UK, at 82,173 and 198,885 respectively. [http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs2/r188.pdf] These rising prison numbers however do not necessarily reflect a rise in crime. Overall, since 1995 there has been a reduction in total crime. The British Crime Survey has shown that the overall crime experienced by households has actually reduced by 42% which is the equivalent to eight million fewer crimes. More specifically, domestic burglary has fallen by 59%, vehicle theft has decreased by 61% and violent crimes have experienced a reduction of 41%. According to these figures it appears that the reason for the growth in the prison population is not due to a rise in crime. In fact, the reason for this has been the increasing use of prison sentence and the increasing length of these sentences. [http://www.justice.gov.uk/docs/securing-the-future.pdf] In spite of the faith demonstrated by politicians in the criminal justice system, it would appear that the criminal justice system seems to fail in its own terms. The probability of a criminal re-offending is determined by external factors including having a stable family life, a home and a job. All of these are arguably weakened by a prison sentence. The Social Exclusion Unit has demonstrated that prison fails to rehabilitate on a dramatic scale with two thirds of prisoners re-offending within 2 years of release. [http://www.lifechangeuk.com/PDF%5CSEU%20-%20Reducing%20re-offending%20by%20ex-prisoners.pdf] . However, a prison place costs £37,000 per annum.
Concern has been expressed that the prison is being used as a mechanism to deal with social problems as spending on welfare benefits and services has decreased. Downes and Hansen argue that a country’s welfare spending and prison population are “inversely related,” meaning that a country with high spending on welfare, in turn have a lower prison population and vice versa. Portugal, for example, has 147 prisoners per 100,000 people but spend only 18.2% of their GDP on welfare. This is quite a contrast to Scandinavian states, such as Sweden whose prison population is only 60 prisoners per 100,000 people as they spend 31% of GDP on welfare. Indeed, during the 90s the UK, whose spending on welfare is only 20.8% GDP, saw an increase of 40% in the number of custodial sentences passed out. [http://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/opus304.html] This is arguably reflected in the composition of the UK’s prison population.For example, almost half of the prison population in Britain has been diagnosed with 3 or more mental disorders. [http://www.revolving-doors.org.uk/documents/reports/Prisons_Britains_Social_Dustbin_070915.pdf] Of those prisoners diagnosed with a mental health problem: 50% of these prisoners are not registered with a GP; 42% of men with a psychotic disorder received no emotional or mental support in the previous year before imprisonment; 79% of men with a personality disorder received no emotional or mental support in the previous year before imprisonment; 46% have been arrested having never received any benefits despite their disorder; over a third are sleeping rough and over two thirds are not in education or training [http://www.revolving-doors.org.uk/documents/reports/Prisons_Britains_Social_Dustbin_070915.pdf]
Broadening perceptions of harm
The zemiological, or social harm approach attempts to broaden public and sociological focus to vicissitudes of daily life in capitalist society, some of these harms, they argue are more harmful than those caused by crime. Approximately 1,000 people a year are murdered in England and Wales. [http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs07/crime0607summ.pdf] . However, there are a number of events that cause large amounts of physical harm and even death, which are rarely considered crime or criminalised. In the UK there are around 40,000 serious road accidents in the UK every year. This is equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing every month. In 2002 3,431 people were killed on Britain’s roads and 35,976 seriously injured. [http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/southeast/series7/cars.shtml] . In 2002, 81,562 cases of food poisoning were reported and the majority of these cases are believed to have been contracted in food prepared outside the home. [http://www.food.gov.uk/news/pressreleases/2002/feb/campaign] . In the UK, The Labour Force Survey found that 228 people were killed while working due to a work-related incident and 2.2 million people with illnesses in the UK believed their condition was made worse by their past or current job. [http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/lfs/lfs0607.pdf] . A growing phenomena impacting on worker’s health is stress. A recent report issued by the British Health and Safety executive found that 16% of workers were working over 60 hours a week₁. Similarly, the Department for Trade and Industry found that 19% of men visited doctors for stress related problems, with that figure rising to 23% in men over 40. The Trade Union congress also found 10% of work-based personal injury cases were stress-related. [http://www.hazards.org/workedtodeath/dropdead.pdf] . According to the Department of Health there were 3500 deaths occurring from the effects of sulphur dioxide and 8100 deaths were caused due to particulate matter in the air in July 2002. See: [http://www.advisorybodies.doh.gov.uk/comeap/statementsreports/airpol7.htm#results]
Equally, the financial costs theft and burglary are outweighed when one considers wider financial harms. For example, thousands of homeowners have been sold endowment mortgages without any likely means of repaying them. More than 3 million homeowners face the likelihood that their endowment policy ,when it matures, will be worth too little to pay off the mortgage. 60% of endowment mortgages are not on track to cover the original debt and 39,000 complainants looking to receive approximately £126 million. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2002/oct/27/endowments.observercashsection] Today in Britain 9.5 million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions, 8 million cannot afford 1 or more essential good, 7.5 million people do not have enough money to attend social activities and 4 million do not receive proper nutrition. [http://www.bristol.ac.uk/poverty/pse/sum_find.htm] .
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