Discourses on crime and punishment

Abstract:The perception of criminal justice in society is a quite controversial social problem. Traditionally, criminal justice issues are treated as a matter of professional interest of criminologists, criminal justice experts, and other professionals from the related fields.  However, in the context of the sociology of knowledge such position is not so obvious.  In modern democratic states one can reveal and describe at least three different discursive practices – professional, political, and public – about crime and punishment that constitute and determinate the perception of criminal justice in society. 

Keywords: crime, criminology, discourses

Since ancient times the concept of justice has been associated with harmony, a certain balance between a man and the universe in which physical, biological, psychological, moral, legal, and theological elements appear to be intertwined. In the legal tradition, justice is commonly understood through the prism of “adjustments”, restoration of the disturbed “balance” of interests. Criminal justice can be considered a specific type of this retributive adjustment. Traces of Western rational metaphysics can be also well seen in the principles of modern criminal justice, for example, in the works of the authors of those principles, Beccaria (1995), and Bentham (2000). According to them, laws are a manifestation of the social contract among members of a society delineating the field of social interests which, in the liberal tradition, is associated with life, freedom and property (estate). The state, by its power, guarantees the observance of laws and, by doing so, ensures the protection of a common social interest. Any lawbreaker or criminal encroaches not upon a private interest of an individual or a group of individuals, but on the common interest which has a form of the social contract and is governed by relevant laws.

Social contract participants are assumed to be rational, free-willed individuals who are aware of the aims and legislative expressions of the social contract. The law restricts individual’s arbitrariness in receiving gains and pleasure on account of other free-willed individuals who are aware of the aims and legislative express to derive undue benefits and pleasures, as non-observance of the social contract, and as a violation of a social and political equilibrium. Criminal justice serves the purpose of restoring infringed justice and, at the same time, of deterring potential offenders by demonstrating likely consequences of crimes (sanctions). The punishment must outweigh the benefits and pleasures of crime, i.e. it must be disadvantageous to and inflict pain on the offender. 

Although the criminological literature does not provide a universally accepted definition of “criminal justice”, it may be reconstructed according to the existing theoretical discussions and practices. Criminal justice, in the most general sense, can be defined as a process based on legal, moral and ethical norms (including factors influencing the initiative of legal functioning, the legal forms of functioning, actors and their behavioural structure, etc.), during which it is established (revised, supplemented, etc.) what actions are considered a crime in a certain historical period and what criminal sanctions should be applied for a certain criminal conduct, and legal procedures, forms and methods for detecting crimes are defined along with practical conduct of private individuals, who enter or get involved into the process with the powers of government in the investigation or examination of offences and in enduring the sanctions applied (Dobryninas et al, 2012, 225). 

It should be noted, however, that the definition of criminal justice would hardly satisfy all those whose professional activities are related to this area in one way or another. It is not because professional lawyers sharing other different academic insights and theoretical conceptions may dislike the definition. The reason is that this definition is adapted to narrow, practical and institutional purposes of criminal justice, but hardly captures the modern social medium in which criminal justice represents just one of social institutes in a complex, dynamic process known as “social life”. In this context we little speak about that any empowered structure or individual person tries to imitate the function to criminal justice “to supervise and punish” in this process, but rather about that they also have their perceptions and understanding of what the state should do with those who deviate from the fundamental norms of social life, disobey the law and thereby go against the state.

Unfortunately, the classical principle of practical justice, entrenched in a number of democracies as a constitutional norm that “justice is administered by courts”, is often, or even usually, understood not as a norm of unbiased hearing of a case, but rather as a claim of a certain specialised social group to the absolute knowledge of what is good and bad, as well as to the undisputable and exceptional administration of justice. Without questioning the importance of specialised knowledge for high-quality performance of “justice services”, we should keep in mind Mannheimian ideas that modern democracies are undergoing the egalitarisation of knowledge, that knowledge of “lower classes” is regaining its “weight and prestige” in society, and that free circulation of social classes in society produces free communication among different “forms of thinking and experiences” (1994; 7).    

The becoming of criminal justice an effective mechanism of social control in modern societies, in addition to its serving as a tool for legitimising political authority, was already mentioned by Foucault (1977), Melossi and Pavarini (1995), and other critical thinkers. However, diffusion of the knowledge of criminal justice keeps going on in our times, transforming, not without media’s help, into an attribute of popular culture. Classified pre-trial material becomes internet sensations, civil activists audit the professionalism of law enforcement officers, whereas justice in resonant cases is “administered” by television channels and their audiences.

It is not that criminal justice professionals are unaware of these trends and withdraw from any reactions. Modern countries obviously witness a transition process from a traditionally “elite-restricted legal education” to an “egalitarian”, open “shared-participation” project, from traditional criminal justice with a focus on abstract interests of a state  to so-called “procedural justice” oriented towards specific needs of community and its members . 

In this respect, criminal justice, its principles and performance are, and will inevitably be, the object of not only professional discourses but of political and public ones as well. And this has to be admitted by relevant professional practitioners and representatives of academic world. However, it is more difficult to admit that the discussions and disputes are far from being always fruitful, whereas strategic decisions in the criminal justice sphere are ineffective and not reflecting the levels of modern science and public expectations. The most common reason for this is a lack of effective communications between criminal justice experts, politicians and the general public, as well as insufficient level of mutual understanding for ensuring effective implementation of the objectives of democratic criminal justice. 

The above-mentioned project “Reception of Criminal Justice in Society” aimed at answering the question of how the perception of criminal justice is taking place in society, what forms of knowledge of the fundamental principles of criminal justice are widespread among different social groups, what mechanisms are employed to organise such knowledge, and what interactions are among them. On the one hand, the project team tried to demonstrate that research into criminal justice cannot be limited to mere normative contexts and that criminal justice can be viewed not only as a practical instrument of administering criminal justice, but also as a social and cultural phenomenon containing philosophical, sociological, psychological, economic, and political aspects. On the other hand, it supported common understanding that criminal justice problems are not the professional or political matter only: effective communication and co-operation with society members are prerequisite conditions for successful implementation of criminal justice ends in the democratic society.

  In his analysis of the perspectives of the sociology of knowledge, British sociologist Tim Dant argues that in the context of social processes this discipline tries to combine knowledge, power, social structure, individual agent, socialisation, culture and language. Therefore, social knowledge is unrealisable without certain forms of relationship with ideology and discourse (1991, 228).  The link between knowledge, power and language represents the central methodological principle of this research which is partially implemented in its theoretical part and is further supplemented with the design of the empirical research and interpretations of their results.   

In chosen methodological approach the interaction between knowledge, power and language draws from two theoretical sources: the social epistemic stratification theory by Alfred Schutz (1964), the father of phenomenological sociology, and the idea of discourse as empowered speaking analysed by the researcher of social ideas and practices, Michel Foucault (1981). Schutz noticed, that different levels of professional competence of knowledge allow to construct three different ideal types,  that can be identified (in descending order of competence) as “the expert” (expert knowledge), “the well-informed citizen” (intermediate knowledge), and “the man on the street” (everyday knowledge) (1964, 122). Agreeably to this classification one can considers  three corresponding  social epistemic groups – “experts”, “well-informed citizens”, and “people on the street”, – which not only poses specific knowledge about social issues, but in turn, may produce its own speaking and communicative relationships in the matters that are contemplated and perceived within the respective competence of the groups. The structures that enable speaking can be highly diverse and conditioned by the specifics of the groups themselves, ranging from universities and political parties to the mass media and rural communities.

This scheme of the sociology of knowledge can be similarly applied to the analysis of the reception of criminal justice in society. Experts – criminologists, law professionals, officers of law enforcement institutions – understand the objectives and problems of criminal justice in one way, while ordinary people, who usually become aware of these problems from newspapers or television, see them differently. One more view is represented by those responsible for making and enforcing criminal policy – national- and local-level politicians, policy administrators and executors, journalists, etc. The above mentioned knowings are not merely static or isolated: they change, interplay, interact and modify each other. They have their own institutional and structural support, reference groups, specific forms of expression and linguistic aspects. In order to understand how criminal justice is perceived and upheld in society, it is necessary to take into account the above mentioned and related elements.

Criminal justice discourses may differ by their principles, strategies and implementation mechanisms. Experts’ or professional discourse aspires to a just understanding of justice and, as it was mentioned above, is linked to the idea of justice as “equilibrium” or ratio. It embodies adaptive principles for the pain of pleasure which are implemented through a sort of the “economy of pain” or social calculation of punishments (Christie’s “limits to pain”, (1981)). The “well-informed citizens” or political discourse is inclined to view criminal justice through the prism of public safety and societal control, which could be a matter of interest of various governmental and nongovernmental institutions and their representatives. Identification of potential offenders (criminalisation), prosecution and punishment legitimate power-holders, whereas the set and enforced control (“pain”) regimes correlate with dominant political ideologies (Radzinowicz, 1966; Foucault, 1977). The “people on the street” or public discourse is focused on opinions or, more precisely, on stereotyped schemes about order and justice. These stereotyped schemes represent both the deep religious beliefs, which are usually not reflected, about purifying the evil through pain (Hulsman, 1991) and superficial, diverting need, supported by mass media, for crimes and punishments (Cohen, Young, 1981).     

Although the analysis of the empirical part of the project is not the aim of current presentation it is worth to mention shortly its design and general findings. Empirical material for the analysis of criminal justice discourses in Lithuania is based on two quantitative (the representative population survey and mass media monitoring) and two qualitative (focus groups and semi-structured interviews) sociological surveys carried out during the project.

The qualitative surveys were aimed at analysing criminal justice reception within three social epistemic groups (experts, ordinary society members and well-informed citizens) and measuring the possibilities for interactions between these groups. The surveys sought to explore the emergence of professional criminological discourse accumulating the principles of regulatory and epistemic social sciences, to analyse the role of political ideologies in the development of criminal policy priorities and principles, and to analyse the specific characteristics of criminal justice public discourse. 

The quantitative analysis was aimed at exploring the specificity of public discourse and the role of mass media in construction of the criminal justice vision in society. Public opinion and public discourse are, as a matter of fact, not identical. However, given the extent the public opinion is identified with or linked to stereotypes, it may be stated that a quantitative analysis of public opinion may at the same time represent the quantitative expression of public discourse. On the other hand, in view of the role of the mass media in shaping public opinion, public discourse may be considered a kind of media construct. A methodological scheme of media study is based on the phenomenological sociology theory of signs and symbols in constructing social reality and social knowledge. 

The gained empirical results demonstrated that the listed earlier discourses are not homogeneous; despite their epistemic uniqueness, the discourses have their common intersections or alliances. The presence of such alliances probably does not allow to directly apply the interpretational schemes of Foucauldian discursive practices (Dobryninas et al, 2014, 80), but they represent an ideal environment for communication among criminal justice experts, well-informed citizens and ordinary people. 

The presented results of the empiric surveys do not lay claim to a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the perception of criminal justice in Lithuanian society; however they show that the conception of criminal justice is not an exclusive concern of the professionals of this area. The levels of perceiving criminal justice are different, as are its reception in the society. Most of respondents agree that consensus about implementation of criminal justice principles among different groups of society is possible only to a certain extent. The participants of the survey mention a number of various reasons that encumber mutual understanding: financial limitations, lack of inter-institutional collaboration, primacy of party or personal interests over the public ones, etc. However, the need for justice is common for all, i.e. it is understood that the decisions passed in criminal justice system must be fair (impartial), objective, humane, equal for everyone. And, despite the fact that the opinions regarding the method of achieving such understanding are very divergent and it is admitted that unanimity would be hardly achieved, if ever, there is a common concern about the current situation in criminal justice area and the desire to improve it. Therefore, future communication, discussions, and conciliation of interests concerning crime and punishment among different social groups would be very helpful to make criminal justice meet the fundamental interests of democratic society.


  1. Beccaria, C. (1995). „On Crime and Punishments“.  In Bellamy, R. (ed.) Beccaria: On Crimes and Punishments and Other Writings. (Tran. by Davies, R.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Bentham, J. (2000). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Kitchener: Batoche Books.
  3. Cohen, S., Young, J. (1981). The Manufacture of News. London: Constable.
  4. Christie, N. (1981). Limits to Pain: the Role of Punishment in Penal Policy. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.
  5. Dant, T. (1991). Knowledge, Ideology, and Discourse. A Sociological Perspective. Oxon: Routledge.
  6. Dobryninas, A., Cesniene, I., Dobrynina, M., Giedraitis, V., Merkevicius, R. (2014) Perception of Criminal Justice in Society. Vilnius: Baltijos kopija.
  7. Dobryninas, A., Dobrynina, M., Cesniene, I., Giedraitis, V., Merkevicius, R. (2012). „On Perceptions of Criminal Justice in Society“. Sociologija: Mintis ir veiksmas, vol. 2, pp. 222–238.
  8. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (Tran. by Sheridan, A.) New York: Pantheon books.
  9. Foucault, M. (1981). „The Order of Discourse“. In Young, R. (ed.) Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  10. Hulsman, L. (1991). „The abolitionist case: Alternative crime policies“. Israel Law Review, vol. 25(3–4), pp. 681–709.
  11. Mannheim, K. (1954). Ideology and Utopia. An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., Inc.
  12. Melossi, D., Pavarini, M. (1995). The Prison and the Factory: Origins of the Penitentiary System. London: Macmillan.
  13. Radzinovicz, L. (1966). Ideology and Crime. London: Heinemann.
  14. Schutz, A. (1964). „The well-informed citizen“. In Schutz, A. Collected Papers, vol. 2, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, pp. 120–134.

Aleksandras Dobryninas
Vilnius University