Spillover: The New Anthropology of Crime

This is the second part of the interview presented in the May 2009 Directions section. Ben Penglase interviewed Stephanie C. Kane and Phil Parnell, co-editors of Crime’s Power: Anthropologists and the Ethnography of Crime.

In that interview, Ben Penglase asked this question:

In some of your comments, criminalization seemed to be conceptualized as exclusion—as creating another Other which can serve as a “way of leaving others out.” At the same time, you both note that crime and criminal economies link and integrate people across multiple boundaries as, for instance, the very exclusion of “illegal” squatter neighborhoods helps to integrate their residents into cross-class syndicates.

As Nordstrom points out with her concept of il/legality, which Stephanie brought up, it is the very “illegalization” of certain forms of commerce that not only generates higher profit margins (and hence greater integration into economic flows), but that also increases the incentive for actors to connect with both legal and illegal spheres. In my own fieldwork, I often think about these paradoxes: for instance, it is the historical pattern of “illegalization” and marginalization of Brazilian favela communities that has made them so attractive as distribution sites for a regional trade in cocaine, integrating them into a complex il/legal economy. Similarly, some young men in Rio’s favelas actively seek out “otherness,” appropriating the power of being a “bandido,” or drug-dealer, not to evade or resist the law, but exactly the opposite: to dramatically enact their visibility through their very marginality. In these cases, it doesn’t seem like one side’s “outside” is another’s “inside,” but that thinking of exclusion and inclusion as opposite is somehow too simplistic. Can crime and criminalization produce exclusion and inclusion not as diametrical opposites but, perhaps, as sides of the same coin, or as processes that work together in complex combinations?

Building on Ben’s question, Stephanie and Phil responded by collaboratively producing a framework for continuing discussion. This emerged through a back-and-forth initiated by Kane. She suggested five points, which then evolved into an amended text which she produced incorporating comments from Parnell:

Framework for Discussion

POINT #1: Exclusion and inclusion are general social processes, while crime and criminalization are more specific social processes. In other words, crime and criminalization are processes of exclusion and inclusion with a particular cast of characters, tropes, institutional bases, informal networks, skills and tools. That said, processes of exclusion and inclusion are analytic abstractions that cannot exist independently of specific process in any particular instance or context. When we attempt to generalize our understanding of crime cross-culturally, as per Ben’s question, we can compare the ways in which processes of exclusion and inclusion are enacted, expressed, represented, in terms of diverse definitions of crime and criminalization. (Note that we include the deployment of law as part of what we are studying, here we also include informal social processes.)

POINT #2: Crime and criminalization thus depend on, shape, and disrupt the more general patterns of exclusion and inclusion in a social setting or society. In this framework, new cultural formations of crime and criminalization will modify prevailing time and place-based patterns of inclusion and exclusion. Again, these patterns of inclusion and exclusion are analytic abstractions through which we can do cross-cultural comparison. Who counts as insiders or outsiders, and how the distinction is accomplished, are key aspects of the substance that we discover, document, and interpret in our fieldwork sites or texts.

POINT #3: At the same time, these general and specific processes of social organization and action depend on, shape, and disrupt the axes of identity and difference (both abstract and embodied) through which humans inter-relate (race, sex, gender, class, nation, health status, etc.). (Maybe we should also think of axes of identity and difference as templates for general processes of inclusion and exclusion, crime and criminalization, although they may also act very much like crime and criminalization, as specific processes of inclusion and exclusion. Should we pin this down?)

Even as we find ways to think comparatively and globally about crime and criminalization, we are aware that our scholarly abstractions (general and specific processes) – as well as the particular axes of identity and difference we have discovered and used – may shift in terms of the kind of phenomena involved and their relation to each other. To be flexible in any particular case or situation, as well as overall, we sustain an open orientation toward the possibilities, e.g., direction of causality and effect, level of analysis, degree of interaction, and quality and extent of emergence and decline.

POINT #4: These social webs or fabrics test, energize, reproduce and create anew “complex combinations” of action and effect, shaped by particular circumstances, intentions, material and cultural resources—and by the individuals and groups living in, or preying on, that social fabric. Their particular moral or ethical valence arises out of such complex combinations. Thus any adequate analysis—as well as any effort toward finding justice—must take account of such complex combinations.

POINT #5: These analyses would need to take account of varying scales (local/regional/global) and levels of mass mediation (e.g., the story of a crime occurring in and reported by a local journalist in a town newspaper may be picked up, reproduced, and re-imagined in and through various media networks, institutional forums, and genres—with unpredictable effect).

After these five points were articulated, the conversation went in a number of different directions, which are available in follow-up comments by Kane and Parnell.