Book review: Women, Crime and Social Harm

Mathieu Deflem

This is a copy of a book review in Law and Politics Book Review, August 2009.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2009. Review of Women, Crime and Social Harm: Towards a Criminology for the Global Era, edited by Maureen Cain and Adrian Howe. Law & Politics Book Review 19(8):587-589.

The field of criminology is moving in all kinds of directions, at least there where it moves. For it would be too naive a view to assume that, because the field has been changing in some areas, it would not stand still in many others. Just have a look at the mainstream criminology journals to see what most criminologists still do and keep on doing despite the little gains they have made in seeking to find the real causes of crime and formulate solutions accordingly. Alternative modes of doing criminology sometimes fare no better as exercises in futility as they are mired in utopian projects with no realistic expectations, neither in scholarship nor politics. But there are fresh perspectives that have effectively urged criminologists to look at their area of research differently and with a more hopeful view of constructing useful new ways of research and theorizing. Among these developments, the elaboration of a criminology adjusted to our global era may count, at fortunate times at least, as both the most urgently in need of expansion and the most successful in already having produced favorable results. This edited collection fits this movement very well and admirably adds to our understanding in global criminology, specifically with a focus on the position of women.

An edition in the Oñati International Series in Law and Society, this volume contains contributions that were originally presented at a workshop at the Oñati Institute in Spain. What is probably most remarkable about this collection, apart from its various chapters’ substantive merits, is that it reads truly as the work of a collective. Clearly the authors were on the same page and coordinated their activities according to the respective contributions of one another. The editors, Maureen Cain and Adrian Howe, are to be commended for securing this cohesion, which, as we know, is not always easily attained in edited volumes. In the remainder of this review, I can therefore also discuss the substance of the book as a collective work rather than by identification of the individual authors.

The book is divided into four parts, the first of which presents a general programmatic background to the study. Most essentially, this collection is involved in the problem of violence against women on a global scale. Special attention goes to the harmful effects of global structures and processes on women at the local level. The concept of harm is rooted in the work of Edwin Sutherland, who introduced the notion to differentiate from a narrower (legal) concept of crime. Defined in opposition to common welfare in society, harms can [*588] be or cannot be recognized by law, an empirical variability that is far from trivial, especially in terms of the likelihood of the enforcement of sanctions against harmful behavior.

At the global level, harms can be produced by nation-states or by international organizations. Such harmful conduct may be an unintended but nonetheless very real consequence of behavior. Particularly discussed throughout this book are the political, legal, and economic policies of states and international corporations. An added problem with such conduct is that its harm-producing nature at the structural level is often not recognized and hence difficult to address, legally or otherwise. By example, economic policies by the World Bank and the World Trade Organization that may be useful to the economic conditions in the Western and Northern world are detrimental elsewhere, especially to women who already find themselves in a vulnerable position. Because of the focus on harm against women, it is not unwise to also look at the movements that are taking shape to address violence against women. Thus, certain local groups that have been seeking to redress the harm done against women in various places across the world are also discussed in this volume.

Parts II and III address empirically a variety of concrete instances where women are victimized and how, in response, human rights are relevant in this context. Among the concerns that receive special attention are the trafficking in women, the relocation of minority groups, and the international organization of sex work. The problem of responsibility to pinpoint who exactly causes these harms is specifically addressed, as the perpetrators of global harms are typically much more difficult to identify than, by comparison, in the case of direct inter-personal violence. Additionally, even when an offender has been identified and charged, convictions are often hard to achieve. From the viewpoint of human rights and human rights law, the authors show how gains have been made, yet they also expose the limitations of the realization of human rights protections, particularly at the level of international law but also at the local level. In some contexts, for instance, human rights are articulated locally in terms of so-called ancient customs which, in truth, are ahistorically constructed in contemporary cultural settings in terms women refer to as ‘bullshit law.’

The book’s final part addresses certain lessons that criminologists should learn from the global study of harm on women. A call is made to engage scholarly with these problems, and also to work towards an activist orientation. The work that is done by global and local movements to address the harm against women is therefore discussed in order to build an effective anti-movement. Of course, this does not need to imply that a “committed criminology” needs to be developed, as Cain and Howe argue (p.12), but could also lead to the development of a criminological commitment – an activism that is, at least to some extent, based on insights from criminological research, rather than a criminology infused with activist concerns.

This is a very exciting book, with a wealth of empirical findings on important problems and a range of [*589] thoughtful suggestions that benefit the study of women and harms in the global world. Given the scope of this volume, I am only disappointed by the title of the book, which is not sufficiently precise in suggesting the focus on women and social harm in the global era. The subtitle in particular does not rightly convey the delineated but valuable focus of this collection and thus also does not do justice to other works in the broader field of global criminology that do not address feminist problems. The book could also have benefited from a concluding chapter. Although the last section of the editors’ introduction contains some broader reflections, a separate chapter might have drawn the various contributions more closely together and open up vital questions and avenues for future research. In all other respects, however, this is a very competent work that demonstrates the value of research in global criminology as it is being conducted today. It thereby also shows, as do many other extant works in related areas, that the need to argue for the development of a global criminology need no longer be made, as global criminology is now being practiced and has already borne many fruits, more of which are surely to come in the near future.