Confinement, Surveillance, Control: Renewing Anthropology’s Relationship with Criminal Justice Systems


Police Call Box 3, © Jennie Simpson, 2014

This month, Practicum would like to welcome Scott Catey, Ph.D., J.D. who will be a regular contributor to the section. Dr. Catey is a Senior Program Specialist at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) and the National PREA Resource Center (PRC). PREA is the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal statute designed to reduce the incidence and prevalence of sexual violence in confinement facilities at federal, state, and local levels. The statute was passed in 2003, and the national PREA standards were issued in 2012 to provide the detailed regulatory requirements for PREA implementation and compliance in confinement facilities. Prior to working at NCCD and PRC, Dr. Catey worked as the PREA Coordinator for the Montana Department of Corrections, and as adjunct professor at Georgia State University and Agnes Scott College.  

Recently, I have been thinking very much about the nature of criminal justice as a social form, and its general absence from disciplinary agendas in anthropology. There are a number of reasons for this absence, including, importantly, that criminal justice does not constitute a straightforward or uncomplicated category, and, although there have been notable contributions to related issues by significant figures in anthropology, criminal justice has not been adequately delineated as an analytical category in the discipline. In this article, I offer some nascent thoughts on how, collectively, we might begin to think more closely about the nature of the criminal justice system, and to develop the project of constituting criminal justice as an appropriate subject of the anthropological imaginary, theoretical practice, and practical applications of anthropology in real world settings.

Conventionally, the criminal justice system is held to comprise the institutions that manage those accused of committing crime, and typically has three primary components: police, courts, and corrections. This description is incomplete, however, and locates criminal justice epistemically in a subsidiary position in the social firmament. Criminal justice thus is believed to be a relatively minor piece of larger, more important considerations, such as the state, power/domination, (neo)liberalism, politics and law, or human rights. I suggest, however, that criminal justice is more than merely an adjutant of law; more than a subordinate domain in which the actions of law enforcement, surveillance, and control are performed; more than an epiphenomenon of larger structural forces of historical origin.

Criminal justice, I argue, is foundational. It is constitutive of the extant social order, of lived material and symbolic worlds, and of communities of practice (cf. Haraway 1997). Indeed, I suggest that changes in the criminal justice system foster and reciprocate changes elsewhere in the social, and therefore we need to push the depiction and analysis of criminal justice much further and unpack its rich potential for our scholarship and practice.

Formulating the problem this way, in terms of thinking about the nature of criminal justice and its formative and transversal connections with other social domains, leads me to three questions:

  1. What can anthropology bring to the study of crime and criminal justice?
  2. What can the criminal justice project bring to anthropology? and
  3. How can such a project inform the practices of the criminal justice system itself, and its constituent institutions, structures, processes, personnel, and functions?

I pose these questions not to suggest that we need to define criminal justice. Rather, I think we ought to inquire into the nature of criminal justice and its principles, dynamics, functions, effects, symbols, social worlds, and subjectivities. This is what anthropology can bring to criminal justice: a critical, empirical, comparative, and proximate examination of criminal justice systems. This will enable us to explore the appropriation, proliferation, purposes, and consequences of criminal justice discourses; the ways that the concepts and practices of criminal justice constitute social worlds, lived realities, and extensive sets of relations cross-culturally; how criminal justice mobilizes and allocates resources; and how it defines and shapes subjectivities and determinate forms of social interaction, among other issues. This type of sustained engagement with criminal justice is currently missing in anthropology, to the detriment of both fields, as well as to the detriment of those caught up in the tendrils of the justice system apparatus globally, nationally, and locally.

What can the criminal justice project bring to anthropology? Why should anthropologists care about the nature of the criminal justice system? For me, a useful starting point here is to observe that criminal justice is polythetic in nature; that is, it encompasses classes of phenomena that exhibit only a “family resemblance” (Wittgenstein 1958:32). These phenomena are foundational as a way of thinking about and organizing social worlds, and lead to important insights about modes, rationalities, and technologies of governing and of regulating social behavior, as well as insights into collective ideas about humanness, propriety, and the Other. In other words, as a scholarly and practical project, criminal justice offers stimulating challenges to scholars and practitioners in anthropology, and can enliven inquiry in the discipline.

Which leads to my third question: how can the criminal justice project in anthropology inform practices in the criminal justice system itself? How can anthropologists contribute to developments in progressive reform, in social justice, and in improving outcomes in criminal justice processes, such as reducing racial disparities in arrests and convictions; improving health care in pre-trial detention; decreasing the prevalence of sexual violence in confinement; or re-directing the “prison pipeline”? How can anthropologists help to combat stigma; counter the dehumanization of offender populations; or argue successfully for foundation and philanthropic dollars to be directed to criminal justice research and practice? How can anthropology as a discipline begin to provide career and other support for those of us who choose criminal justice careers in government, the non-profit world, or with private employers?

I believe we need to shift away from an epistemological foundation that holds that the problems posed for anthropologists are (obviously) different from, and in some sense perhaps opposed to, the problems criminal justice and other justice systems pose for themselves as fields of inquiry, intervention, and practice. This “gap,” contrary to what you might have heard, is bridgeable. We need to identify the circumstances in which the gap can be, and has been, bridged, and work to reproduce these efforts. We also need to identify the circumstances that prevent bridging the gap, and actively work against these. The gap, in my opinion, is structured, and significant boundary work is conducted in order to sustain it, and to sustain the mirrored and enduring distinction between “theory” and “application.” However, the implications and consequences of continuing disciplinary and professional inaction vis-à-vis criminal justice are too great.

Part of my justification for seeking to habilitate criminal justice as a proper anthropological subject is increasing knowledge; I absolutely believe that the discipline needs to more rigorously and more meaningfully engage with the classes of phenomena that populate criminal justice. However, the project cannot be simply a question of research and scholarly writing; it must also entail practice, public service, and the application of research and knowledge to help solve the entrenched injustices, disparities, and violations which bedevil the criminal justice system itself, and which therefore negatively impact on all of us. In future contributions to Practicum, I will provide discussion and analysis of the types of phenomena, processes, outcomes, and issues current in U.S. and other criminal justice systems, to which anthropology can constructively contribute in terms of research, theorizing, and practice.

Let me state for the record that I choose to engage professionally in practical work in criminal and social justice because it is needed, and because of the significant human rights implications. Sexual violence, physical violence, serious lack of medical and mental health care, and death are common but remediable occurrences in confinement settings. As I was finalizing the draft of this entry, a new but disturbingly banal headline arrived in my inbox: “Florida Department of Corrections Fires 32 Employees over Inmate Deaths.” It is devastating enough that the deaths occurred, and that they occurred in institutions entrusted with the safety of incarcerated persons. But the specific details of some of them are horrifying. Is there a way to apply my disciplinary knowledge, skills, and methodologies to potentially contribute to the mitigation of even a part of this reality, a reality in which I find myself complicit as an ordinary citizen and as a consumer of the practices of safety, security, and criminalization? The answer is yes, and for this I am grateful.

References cited

Haraway, Donna. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan_Meets_Oncomouse: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1958. Philosophical Investigations, 2d ed. G. Anscombe, translator. Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Author statement
This article reflects the views of the author only and should in no way be construed to represent the views or policies of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the National PREA Resource Center, or any other organization.

5 thoughts on “Confinement, Surveillance, Control: Renewing Anthropology’s Relationship with Criminal Justice Systems

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  2. Nice column. Two things about anthro and criminal justice you piece made me think.

    POLAR a main journal in this field that can link research on the Criminal Justice System to our field more generally is in terms of frequency quite poor. There are lots of submission and very few issues. So much so the editor themselves claim they reject papers that are good enough for a revise and submit because they just do not have the space. Perhaps we need a better way to connect anthro research in this field to publication.

    A second thing your article made me think about is white collar crime and corruption, which are two things i study (see a recent chapter on white collar crime in Trinidad here Studying up and studying elites can of course be described as studying the criminal justice system. And i was thinking your piece doesnt say much about the criminal justice system in that sense, so was wondering where studying elites and white collar crime fits into your thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Dylan,

    My apologies for the delayed response to your comment. I want to thank you for taking the time to read and comment on the article, and for the link to your own work.

    First, I agree wholeheartedly that we have a significant need to connect anthropological and ethnographic research and practice to publication. I think the concern you point out regarding PoLAR is an important one, but certainly not limited to that outlet alone. Criminal justice is not a disciplinary priority, and this is reflected in the (absence of) scholarship that makes it to publication. Your call for new, additional publishing venues is, I think, a very good one, and something that I believe should be a core component of a larger strategy of developing a profile and awareness of criminal justice in the discipline and creating the infrastructures that can sustain criminal justice as a disciplinary project: academic programming, career support (in both academic and practicing settings), and publishing, as well as networking opportunities, cross-sector collaborations, methodological innovation, improving the understanding among policy-makers and others of the value and utility of anthropological methods and knowledge, among others. Anthropoliteia and Practicum are two welcome additions to the development of this infrastructure and strategy, and I think it’s worth recognizing the efforts of Kevin Karpiak, Jennie Simpson, the other editors, and the contributors who are making this site a “go-to” place for discussion, debate, and the generation of new ideas. I’m all in for pushing forward more and other ideas and practical solutions to nurturing growth and connections among those of us doing this kind of work and research.

    Second, your observation that my article doesn’t address elites, corruption, and white collar crime is correct, and I strongly agree with you that these are relevant and necessary issues for the kind of comprehensive disciplinary project I envision. Ideally, such a project would make space for the full breadth of the criminal justice system, as well as other justice-involvements, including juvenile justice, child welfare, family services, adult protection, and others. Studying up, studying through, studying sideways… All of these approaches, i think, are concerned with perspective and with situating actors, organizations, institutions, and other ways of innovating theoretical and practical tools for engaging in productive ways with the substantive issues that populate the project.

    In short, corruption, elites, and white collar crime fit closely into my thinking and into my vision of criminal justice as a practical and scholarly project, and I’m gratified that you raised the issue. As I wrote this response, my initial reaction was to rampage into the weeds: my first draft of this reply was a discursus on the unholy triad among criminal justice, health care, and education, and the connections I see between policy worlds, deliberation, budgeting processes, and corruption. It occurred that such a piece is probably not useful as a response to your comment, so I’ll save that for a later regular entry on Practicum. In the interim, however, let me just say that, like Hamlet, I started working on the idea of the criminal justice project by peering into the dark and asking “Who’s there?” I’m pleased that you revealed yourself, to “answer me, [and] stand and unfold yourself.”


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