Mapping the Social Relations of Crime Control

Related to the problem of locality is the problem of community— the organizing concept through which we map the social relations of crime and crime control. Implied in this concept is a view that communities are composed of networks of relationships among offenders, victims, state actors, and members of the public (the “square of crime”). In the age of the internet, viewing social organizations and communities as networks is useful considering the role technologies play in mediating such relationships. In working toward a realist criminology of the internet, it is worth ruminating more deeply the types of social networks engendered by contemporary telecommunications technologies, the methods through which such networks can be mapped, and how realist notions of social organization and structure may need to be loosened to deal with the unique problems presented by the internet.

According to Rainie and Wellman (2012, p. 8) the internet age is marked by “networked individualism.” Referring to a time before the rise of global telecommunications networks, they argue that “in generations past, people usually had small, tight social networks ... where a few important family members, close friends, neighbors, leaders and community groups (churches and the like) constituted the safety net and support system for individuals” (ibid, p. 8). Today, people are increasingly embedded in multiple diffuse social networks mediated through communications technologies. These social networks give tremendous freedom to individuals to curate and expand their relationships. On the other hand, they also create pressure for the individual to generate and maintain these relationships. In other words.

They must actively network. They need to expend effort and sometimes money to maintain their ties near and far; choose whether to phone, visit, or electronically connect with others; remember which members of their network are usefill for what sorts of things (including just hanging out); and forge usefill alliances among network members who might not previously have known each other. In short, networked individualism is both socially liberating and socially taxing, (ibid, p. 9)

The implications of this work for realist criminology is that addressing crime problems through traditionally spatially bound concepts like social solidarity, social capital, collective efficacy, or similar mechanisms may require a reimagination of what these concepts mean across these new networks. For instance, Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls (1997, p. 919) conceptualize collective efficacy as “the linkage of mutual trust and the willingness to intervene for the common good that defines the neighborhood context of collective efficacy.” In the case of internet-mediated social networks, how does one generate “mutual trust” and “willingness to intervene for the common good?” These are instrumental problems confronting a realist criminology of the internet. It also means that mapping the social relations of crime requires expanding the scope of relevant actors when determining the boundaries of the relevant “community.” The communities impacted by online crimes are less bound by geography compared to high-violence neighborhoods. Instead, researchers will be required to trace the diffuse and possibly expansive network of actors involved. One usefill perspective for this enterprise is Actor-Network Theory (ANT) (Latour, 2005; Powell et al., 2018).

Despite its name, ANT is best understood as a methodological orientation concerned with the “tracing of associations” among “actors” (Latour, 2005, p. 5). For ANT, human action is always shaped by relationships with other actors within an “actor-network.” Actors can be both human and non-human entities (objects, like technologies)— anything capable of acting or being acted upon. Networks are therefore dynamic entities constantly created and recreated though action. Further, an actor becomes more significant within a network when the volume and quality of attachments to other actors increases. ANT is useful for a realist criminology of the internet because it avoids common assumptions about non-human agency. Non-human entities like technologies, non-human animals, environmental features, law, policy, prior experience, and knowledge are capable of becoming socially active players within a network, driving and being driven by other actors (Callon, 1991; Latour & Woolgar, 1986).

Yet, an actor-network-theory approach to mapping the social relations of crime control presents a problem for realist criminology— specifically in its view of social structure. For Latour (2005, p. 165), tracing associations within actor networks requires the researcher to “keep the social flat” or resist the urge to project upward and rely on structural formations like “capitalism” and “patriarchy” to perform explanatory heavy lifting. Instead, the researcher should stick to what manifests within the context of the network—if capitalism, for instance, is a problem then it should manifest within the actions of the network, not as some esoteric spiritual force permeating the interstitial spaces of the network. As Latour (2005, p. 64) explains, “power and domination have to be produced, made up, composed. Asymmetries exist, yes, but where do they come from and what are they made out of?”

Realist criminology, on the other hand, mandates that the researcher remain sensitive to both the situational and the structural. Indeed, that consideration of the structural context is necessary to properly addr ess crime and victimization. We suggest, however, these two perspectives are not wholly irreconcilable. In mapping the social relations of crime, realist criminologists should only consider the role of any given structure if it is made manifest in their data. Their existence should not be assumed a priori as a causative factor. Thus the realist criminologist needs to be able to sustain a contradiction: be sensitive to the role of structure but only insofar as structure makes itself apparent. This also will allow the researcher to respond to the particular kinds of structures most relevant for a given crime problem rather than assuming one structure is master of all.

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