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Criminology Seminar Series - Transnational Social Prescriptions and ‘Standa...

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MAL G16

Birkbeck, University Of London

Malet St

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WC1E 7HX

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Transnational Social Prescriptions and ‘Standardising Comparisons’

Speaker: Professor David Nelken (King’s College London)

The comparative study of criminal justice and its transfer across national boundaries has emerged as an important field of research both in criminology and criminal justice. These developments are being implemented partly through international law (especially international criminal law and international human rights law) and partly through wider and more diverse forms of supranational influence and intergovernmental cooperation. Many scholars see the need to study similarities and differences in the actual outcomes of such efforts to transfer best practice. But less attention has been given to the question of how comparison as a social practice is accomplished and what other roles it may be performing. This involves scholars seeking to uncover the ways others go about the tasks of comparison and the consequences that follow from their assumption and activities. (Methodologically, this will involve a 'second order' examination of first order comparisons).

In this paper we first distinguish three kinds of comparison which we call 'foil' comparisons, 'reactive' comparisons and 'standardising' comparisons- and link them to the practical purposes which animate them and condition their 'success'. In each case we need to ask, Who does the comparisons? How are they done? What are the comparisons for? Who are the comparisons for? Broadly speaking, foil comparisons are conducted in the hope of making improvements in one's own system, reactive comparison is the means used to coordinate one's own system with others, whilst standardising comparisons are aimed at changing other places. Here we shall be concentrating on the last of these practices of comparison, the crafting and application of global social indicators as an instrument for ranking and inducing changes. Relevant examples of global indicators for scholars of criminal justice and criminology include those dealing with the rule of law, corruption, fragile states, human trafficking -and even prison rates. Indicators seek to impose rather than discover best practices. But, as is well appreciated, how far these are universal rather than local standards is moot.

Beyond this, we shall try to provide further insight into the strengths and weaknesses of such standardising comparisons with reference to the debate over so -called 'junk science'. Just as evidence presented by experts in court is criticised for being scientifically flawed and politically suspect, so too these exercises in making places commensurable are said to be less about discovering the truth and more about producing knowledge and governance 'effects'. On the other hand, whilst the critique of junk science comes from the political Right, the criticism of indicators comes mainly from the Left. And whilst the complaint about junk science is that judges prefer clinical to epidemiological evidence - transnational standardising comparisons are alleged to fail because they do not attend sufficiently to the specifics of context (see e.g. Sally Merry's The Seductions of Quantification, 2015.

In both cases however what is similar is the way the needs of the institution and social practice shape, and perhaps should prevail over, the search for scientific truth as such. Court forums have other concerns than the advancement of science, so too those making standardising comparisons are mainly seeking to improve standards so as to meet predefined criteria of best practice. They are less interested in understanding than in changing other places. The question thus becomes less the adequacy of the comparisons as such as the legitimacy of this form of governance through comparison (which can be located between legal and algorithms styles of regulation).

About the Criminology Seminar Series

In line with the School of Law, Birkbeck's research and teaching ethos, the Criminology Seminar Series aims to provide a platform for critical and interdisciplinary research, showcasing prominent and path-breaking research on crime, criminal justice and related themes by scholars from within and beyond Birkbeck. The series is convened by Dr Sappho Xenakis, School of Law, Birkbeck.

Attendance to the events is free but registration is required. Talks from the 2017/18 series will be avaible for download via the website. Find out more about the series here. The hashtag for the event is #BBKCrimSeries.

Please note that latecomers to the event are not guaranteed entry. Please be advised that photographs may be taken at the event for use on the Birkbeck website and in Birkbeck marketing materials. By attending this event, you consent to Birkbeck photographing and using your image for these purposes.

By registering for this event you consent to your email address being added to the School of Law, Birkbeck mailing list. Your email address will not be shared with third-party organisations. If you would like to request your removal from our mailing list please contact law-events@bbk.ac.uk

Picture credit: Image is by Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib #67 (2005). University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Gift of the Artist, 2009.12.42 Photographed for the UC Berkeley Art Museum by Benjamin Blackwell.

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MAL G16

Birkbeck, University Of London

Malet St

London

WC1E 7HX

United Kingdom

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