Fergus McNeill, Professor of Criminology and Social Work at the University of Glasgow and CEP Board Member, held an interesting closing plenary address at the British Criminology Conference at Sheffield Hallam University on 8th of July 2017. Read his dialogue about desistance here:



I’m going to be drawing today on recent conversations with colleagues at all career stages and from places including Chile, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and the USA. That’s Scottish criminology for you; nothing if not cosmopolitan.

Critiques of Desistance

I’ll start with desistance theory and research. I want to jump straight into emerging critiques of desistance research, before looking beyond desistance and towards dystopia and utopia. So, buckle up your belts…

Recently, Pat Carlen – perhaps surprisingly — invited me to contribute a chapter on desistance to her co-edited collection with Leandro Ayres Franca on ‘Alternative Criminologies’. The book has just been published in Portuguese and now, the English version is out.

Hannah Graham (who is another Scottish criminologist) kindly agreed to write this chapter with me; and we agreed that it would be appropriate in a collection of this sort to try to engage constructively with critical criminological perspectives on desistance. Another Scottish colleague, Alejandro, would say that what we try to do in that chapter is to enter into a dialogue rather than a debate.

“Desistance is seen by some as too heavily predicated on individualistic notions of rational actors exercising human agency” 

Some critics have begun to suggest that desistance scholars offer a reductionist account of crime and its cessation; one which de-contextualises offending behaviour and, worse, responsibilises individuals for their own desistance and reintegration. In essence, desistance research is seen by some as being ‘too agentic’; too heavily predicated on individualistic notions of rational actors exercising human agency. Eileen Baldry and Phil Scraton are among the esteemed and respected colleagues who have made these points. To de-contextualise and de-politicise both crime and criminalisation is to belie their construction in and through an unjust social order; thus neglecting and perpetuating the inequalities that drive social injustice.

Hannah and I agree that there are aspects of and applications of desistance research that, if emphasised to the exclusion of other things, risk co-optation with responsibilising and reductionist approaches to punishment and rehabilitation. As desistance scholars, we are painfully aware of the increasingly repetitious use of the catch-cry ‘supporting desistance’, often as though this can be delimited to a set of prescriptions for how criminal justice workers can better support individuals to change or secure their own recovery, rather than looking beyond the individual both for the causes and the solutions of crime and criminalisation related problems.

The ‘too individualistic/too agentic’ critique does usefully highlight a tendency within desistance research to focus on individuals as the primary ‘unit of analysis’, although as Beth Weaver’s work demonstrates, there are desistance researchers taking different approaches. That said, there are some good reasons for focusing on the experiences of individuals. Any body of research which decenters or discounts the lived experiences of people in criminal justice processes, while making claims about them, even on their behalf, would lack legitimacy, both methodologically and politically. Instead, the question is how and by whom individual, relational and collective experiences are best to be gathered, represented, understood and explained, with critical emphasis on the reciprocal influences of structure and agency.

In fact, despite the criticisms I have just mentioned, very few desistance scholars advocate rational choice theorisations of desistance. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that most (in the UK at least) routinely reject and challenge reductionist and responsibilising approaches to rehabilitation (as should be obvious from Beth’s talk); that is often one of the reasons why we got into desistance research in the first place. In the UK, desistance research gained momentum as a counter-narrative to ‘what works’ research and related approaches to authoritarian, correctional rehabilitation. Desistance scholars have put considerable intellectual effort into developing sophisticated analyses of the relational, institutional and social contexts of desistance – Stephen Farrall’s work is an excellent example. In this sort of work, understandings of changes in people’s offending are not divorced from but rather linked to changes in life chances and social conditions. Even those commonly identified as identity theorists and sometimes accused of offering accounts that are supposedly ‘too agentic’, like Shadd Maruna or Peggy Giordano, in fact tend to take a social interactionist approach; hence, for example, the importance for Shadd of both labelling and de-labelling processes.

“Some feminist critical criminologists say that desistance scholarship has ignored gendered differences in processes of crime, criminalisation and desistance from crime” 

Some feminist critical criminologists have challenged the validity and utility of desistance scholarship on the grounds of its capacity to recognise and respond to diversity and discrimination. Their criticisms center on the argument that desistance scholarship has ignored gendered differences in processes of crime, criminalisation and desistance from crime and the patriarchal contexts of these processes. Carlton and Baldry (2013) explain their abolitionist stance in rejecting liberal-reformist discourses of women’s ‘pathways’ in terms of imprisonment and desistance as follows:

Desistance, however, does not escape the criticism we bring to other criminal justice policies and programmes – that they are male centric. All the original desistance studies were conducted with men in the United States and the United Kingdom, so that the framework was built around men’s experiences. At its heart, the desistance approach is male centric, individualistic and ignores the interlocking structural contexts of class, race and gender (Carlton and Baldry, 2013: 65).

Pollack (2012: 107) similarly sees liberal reformist gender-responsive ‘pathways’ approaches as complicit in the ‘hegemonic logic’ of correctionalism which imposes expert notions upon criminalised women.’ Pollack (2012) argues this is a form of ‘epistemic violence’ which subjugates women’s narratives and identities, and de-politicises the social-structural roots of crime as a social problem using the ideological tools of evidence-based practices to compel these women’s reform, as if they cannot know themselves what they want and need.

While these are important challenges for desistance scholars, I think there are some inaccuracies in these critiques, which perhaps reflect a lack of serious or sustained engagement with the desistance literature and the debates within it. It is true – and it is both important and problematic – that most desistance research, like most criminology, started with and has privileged men’s experiences. But, in contrast to the critics’ claims, the international literature on desistance increasingly highlights issues of diversity, especially in relation to the gendered and racialised structural contexts of crime, criminalisation and desistance. Indeed, even a cursory reading of some of the key desistance studies reveals the inclusion of girls and women as research participants (see Liebrich, 1993; Graham and Bowling, 1995; Maruna, 2001; Giordano et al., 2002; Blokland and Nieuwbeerta, 2005; Smith and McVie, 2003; McAra and McVie, 2009; Farrall, 2002; Farrall and Calverley, 2006; Farrall et al., 2014).

And, also contrary to these critics’ claims, there has in fact been a proliferation of scholarship on gender in critically understanding both desistance and re/integration (for example, Sommers, Baskin and Fagan, 1994; Uggen and Kruttschnitt, 1998; McIvor, Murray and Jamieson, 2004; Rumgay, 2004; Leverentz, 2006, 2014; King et al., 2007; Søgaard et al., 2015).

Others, have used intersectionality, critical race and post-colonial theories to explore relationships between ethnicity, racialisation and desistance (for example, Calverley, 2013; Glynn 2013, 2015), including in relation to indigenous people’s experience of criminal justice in Canada (Deane, Bracken and Morrissette, 2007) and Australia (Marchetti and Daly, 2016; Halsey and Deegan, 2016).

More generally , and somewhat ironically, the critics sometimes write as if desistance is a singular approach, as opposed to a body of work full of internal conflict. Worse still, they confuse desistance theories and research with a particular criminal justice policy or programme of reform. Policies and programmes can be desistance-oriented in that they can be (1) pointed to that purpose and/or (2) informed by desistance theories and research. However, most desistance scholars think of desistance as a process that belongs to the people going through it, irrespective of which criminal justice professional(s) they interact with or which sanction is imposed upon them, if any. To say this, however, is not to support individualisation and responsibilisation. Indeed, it is intended to hold states, civil societies, justice systems and practices to account for their roles in supporting or frustrating, allowing or denying these processes – both in material and in symbolic terms. It is to these responsibilities that I now want to turn.

Beyond Desistance?

The critiques that I have just mentioned represent a useful challenge to aspects of desistance research and of its criminal justice applications. However, I think that desistance research itself may have begun to do a better job of exposing its own limitations and contradictions, initially by beginning to confront the question of what, if anything, lies beyond desistance from crime? If, as is often argued, desistance is a process of development, what is it supposed to lead to? What kind of human flourishing lies beyond desistance from crime?

We need to look no further than this city to grasp the importance of these questions; the Sheffield Desistance Study highlights them in a particularly bleak and powerful way. Tony Bottoms (2013) has argued that, in that study, some people desisted through a form of extreme ‘situational self-binding’ which amounts effectively to the self-imposed incarceration of social isolation. Although Bottoms (2013) notes that this was a rare phenomenon in the Sheffield study, evidence from other studies suggests that it is not so unusual for those whose desistance processes lack personal and social support.

Adam Calverley’s (2009) exploration of ethnicity and desistance, for example, suggests that Black and Dual Heritage men in one London borough faced the greatest structural and cultural obstacles to desistance and that they too tended to desist through self-isolation.

Two recent Scottish studies of very different populations have produced even clearer accounts of what we might perhaps call ‘dystopian desistance’. Marguerite Schinkel is a Scottish criminologist from the Netherlands. Her study focussed on people who were serving or had served long prison sentences. Briege Nugent is a Scottish criminologist from the north of Ireland. Her study of marginalised young people exiting an intensive support service also found common ‘pains of desistance’ linked to social isolation and the failure to secure work, connection and belonging. These findings certainly paint a depressing and dystopian picture of life after desistance, at least for some people. In a sense, they expose the taken-for-grantedness of the assumption that ending offending is a ‘good’ outcome. Not offending may be a good outcome in the sense that it means less harm for society and for potential victims, but if it entails increases in the suffering of the person desisting (and perhaps of those closest to her or him) then, even on a cold utilitarian logic, the value of this outcome remains uncertain.

Sarah Anderson’s ongoing doctoral research at Glasgow makes an important and novel contribution to this line of argument. Her PhD explores the life histories of men who have experienced repeated trauma, offending and criminalisation and who are struggling to make some kind of recovery. Sarah’s painstaking analysis is beginning to show how the structural and symbolic violence of repeated criminalisation contributes to a cumulative traumatisation which undermines their fragile efforts to desist and, more generally, to build better lives for themselves and those they care most about. And in relation to these loved ones, other important work in Scotland by Cara Jardine, Rebecca Foster and Kirsty Deacon has exposed and is exposing how this structural and symbolic violence reverberates in their lives too.

” Is desistance from crime really the central issue at stake?” 

Ultimately, this leads Sarah to ask whether desistance from crime is really the central issue at stake in these narratives – it is certainly not central to the way many of the men relate their stories. Their struggles are as much struggles for recovery from criminalisation and penalisation as struggles to stop offending. For others, despite histories of offending and criminalisation, both are marginal issues in their day-to-day fight for survival. There may well be things about these men themselves, long-established habits and patterns of thought and behaviour, that they need and want to change; but what they need most is change in long established habits and patterns of criminal justice thought and behaviour and perhaps even more importantly: change in the ways that we think and behave as a society.

For me, this is the most significant current challenge to and critique of desistance research and it emerges from within it, from honestly following the data where it leads, and from examining the process as it is related by people living it. The irremediable problem with talking about desistance is that it accepts offending as the main issue at stake; sometimes forgetting those lessons from Criminology 101 about the way that social structures shape who and what gets criminalised and in whose interests. I think I am perhaps still enough of a ‘left realist’ to accept that offending is an important issue and that striving to reduce it is a good thing. But it seems that desistance research itself is telling us that the real problems are problems of social inequality and social injustice as refracted and amplified through criminalisation and penalisation. In other words, it seems that it is we, the criminalisers, the penalisers, the punishers, the excluders, that need to desist. But how?

Rethinking Rehabilitation

How are we to be supported in our desistance; how are we to be rehabilitated? Critical criminologists have also, again quite rightly, challenged criminology’s and criminal justice’s pre-occupation with their words’.

Re-formation. Re-habilitation. Re-integration. Re-settlement. Re-entry. In French, Re-insertion. In German, Re-socialisation. The common arguments are, first, that these words spring from the (philosophically) liberal assumption that there is a just order in which the ‘offender’ was once habilitated, integrated and settled and, secondly, by implication, that the challenge is replacing him or her in that social order; making him or her fit back in. To put this more figuratively – we focus on reshaping the ‘offender’ and/or on reshaping the gap, but we don’t see the bigger picture of the structures that shape both the square peg and the round hole.

A third, and again related, critique (which we’ve been disssing of late in the SCCJR) concerns the ways in which these terms themselves represent a form of symbolic domination through language; one which has material consequences for those who are its objects. This is not their language or the language of their experiences; it is the self-justifying rhetoric of the system that ensnares them.

How might we respond? We could abandon these terms, but I think that risks both surrendering these terms to others within the criminal justice system and marginalising ourselves in public dialogue and debate. My preference and my approach has been to interrogate and seek to redefine these terms; to challenge not the words themselves but the ways in which they are understood and employed. Indeed, drawing on desistance research, I have argued that we need to develop models, policies and practices that attend not so much to ‘correctional’ understandings of rehabilitation aimed at individual transformation, as to mutual moral reparation, to judicial rehabilitation linked to restored civil rights and status, and to social integration too.

As well as reframing the meanings of these terms, a second response to the problem of symbolic domination may be, as already suggested, to flip the lens and apply these terms to the power-holders and the privileged, or better, to all of us. To borrow from one of John Braithwaite’s memorable criminological contributions, but maybe applying it more to Valerie Braithwaite’s usual targets, a process of reintegrative shaming might be overdue for institutions, systems, practices and people who are the perpetrators of the injustices that uneven criminalisation and penalisation and enduring exclusion exacerbates. Perhaps we all need to be confronted and shamed by our differing degrees of complicity and responsibility for these systemic ‘crimes’, before we can be dissociated from our offences and reintegrated.

“I cannot integrate you and you cannot integrate me. A guest does not integrate a host, nor a host a guest. We integrate together or not at all” 

To teach us about that process, I look to the work of another colleague at the University of Glasgow – Professor Alison Phipps, holder of a recently established UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts. Her conception of refugee integration in avowedly ‘multilateral’; I cannot integrate you and you cannot integrate me. A guest does not integrate a host, nor a host a guest. We integrate together or not at all; as Beth might put it, and as her work so beautifully demonstrates, we have to accept, embody and practice mutual responsibility for creating community through solidarity and subsidiarity. In this sense, my rehabilitation is your rehabilitation and yours is mine. Either we figure out how to live together or we live apart.

When I shared this talk with Hannah a few days ago, she pointed me to this quote from Zygmunt Bauman, offered during one of his last interviews at age 90 last year:

“Divisions and conflicts between people are as old as humanity. There was always an intermixing process of integration and separation. Separation was always the guiding instrument of the integrating effort. If you wanted to integrate people, you have to point to their joint enemy, joint other. The stranger who is against ourselves that we need to watch and be vigilant and to defend ourselves against. For the first time we are in a situation where we have to commit to the next step on the road to integration without separation. The next step is a step towards people who are in a cosmopolitan situation. There are no remaining enemies against whom we will integrate. It’s a new situation that is unpracticed and untested so far. That’s what makes our present moment on the one side, so terrifying, and on the other, so exciting.”

How is this work of integration without separation to be done? It is no accident that Alison Phipps’ academic background is in anthropology and linguistics as well as education; and it is no accident that she has come to recognise the value of the arts as common languages through which integration is enabled, practised and represented.

In the abstract that I provided months ago and which, inconveniently, made its way into the conference programme, I promised at this point to discuss a new project called ‘Distant Voices: Coming Home’, recently funded by the ESRC and AHRC – but I fear that time will defeat me if I allow myself start to talk about this exciting partnership with Vox Liminis (a third sector organisation) and with Jo Collinson Scott (a musicologist from the University of the West of Scotland) and Oliver Escobar (a political scientist from the University of Edinburgh). Suffice it to say that this 3-year project, which has just begun, seeks to blur the boundaries between creative practice, community development, research and knowledge exchange. Its focus is on re/integration, but not the reintegration of individuals who have been punished; rather we aim to explore and influence whether, how and to what extent, a wide range of different actors, ourselves included, can build or rebuild community both during and after state punishment.


As I said earlier, Carlen and Franca’s collection is concerned with ‘Alternatives Criminologies’. In a conference on Forging Social Justice, it seems fitting that I finish in this utopian vein. At the end of his challenging talk yesterday, Simon Winlow did ask us for a bit of criminological vision. This is all I’ve got so far.

Lately, both in Scottish sociology (for example in the work of another Glasgow colleague, Matt Dawson) and in Scottish criminology (in the work of Lynne Copson, Margaret Malloch and Bill Munro), there has been a resurgence of interest in utopia not just as critique but also as method. The work of Ruth Levitas has been one important inspiration in these debates. Levitas defines utopia as ‘the expression of the desire for a better way of being or of living’ (Levitas 2013: xii). She argues that visions of utopias can be developed as compensation for an unjust status quo (as in some religious utopias); as critique of how things are (by contrast with how they might be); and as more or less clearly articulated programmes of change (Levitas, 2000; see Dawson, 2016). Levitas’ (2013) work on utopia also argues the need for an archaeology, one that excavates the vision of the good society implicit in any given utopia; for an ontology, one that explores the utopia’s assumptions about human nature and for an architecture of how the utopia is to be built in practice.

In the assessment that Hannah and I offer in our book chapter, despite the variety of views it encompasses, research on desistance and rehabilitation often shares a common implicit ontology; it asserts and it evidences the positive potential of human subjects and sees them as fundamentally social beings that are capable of growth and development in the right circumstances. As such it undermines criminal justice responses (and social attitudes) that seek to define and to ‘other’ people with reference to their offending behaviour.

To a certain extent, desistance research and rehabilitation research have also offered ‘architectures’ of reform. But these designs, as I have said, vary greatly and are highly disputed both within and between the two literatures; they are even more disparate in the sometimes diverse and contradictory programmes of policy practice reform they have spawned. For some, like Beth and me, I think, the architecture of desistance has arguably moved beyond (and even away from) a focus on criminal justice policy and practice reform to include the development of a much more expansive, but still very young and under-developed, social movement.

What desistance and rehabilitation theories both perhaps lack, however, is a well-developed ‘archaeology’. So long as they begin with the assumed problems of offending and of ending offending rather than with what lies before, behind and beyond these problems and their construction, they will lack a well-articulated vision of the good society. But having said that, as I hope this session has illustrated, by exploring how people build better lives together, desistance research, like much of criminology, eventually forces us , through careful theoretical, empirical and normative work, to explore how we can build better communities and better societies. Increasingly, it makes clear that these questions cannot, should not and must not be separated.

And that’s the challenge, I think for contemporary criminology. It’s not just that we have to escape an uncritical focus on a narrow range of currently criminalised social harms, as the zemiologists argue. It is also that we need, I think, to offer much more than critique; we need to contribute constructively to imagining the architecture of a just social order. That may be a job for Simon Winlow’s radical economists and for political philosophers but, as criminologists, perhaps our unique contribution can be to articulate how a just social order might respond to wrongdoing (of all sorts) in ways that provide more than mere harm reduction. We need to offer responses that create and are constitutive of the conditions under which individual and collective human flourishing are made more possible, rather than constituting and exacerbating the conditions under which many people, families, groups, communities and societies suffer and decay.

We need a manifesto for the many, not the few, as someone said recently.

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