On Fictions and Wicked Problems: Towards a Social Democratic Criminology Project in the Age of Neo-liberalism


If it is true, as Pat Carlen (2010) claims, that contemporary ‘justice’ policies are exhibiting all the signs of ‘penal populism’ and ‘risk crazed governance’, then social democratic criminologists face the dual challenge of explaining why these policies are not only not working but also how this fact continues to be explained away. At stake here are two central questions: firstly, what grounds are available to secure the intellectual legitimacy of criminology; and, secondly, what ways of knowing could secure the legitimacy of a social-democratic criminology. The paper begins by exploring what is at stake when what appears to be a very large number of criminologists claim that theirs is an ‘empirical scientific’ discipline. The paper argues that neither mainstream criminology nor social democratic criminology can base any claims to intellectual legitimacy by relying on an ‘empirical scientific’ frame. The paper draws on Spencer (1987) to advance the ‘unpalatable thesis’ that, as far as the actual practice by conventional criminologists of their kind of social science goes, ‘they do not know what they are doing’ (Spencer 1987: 333) and that their ignorance of this fact has serious consequences for the progress of their field. The paper shows that there is a gap between the actual practice of conventional criminology and its claims to ‘scientific empiricism’: what is actually on offer is an ‘imperfect empiricism’.The long-forgotten work of Bentham, adumbrated by Vaihinger (1935) and Fuller (1967), is then traced and some of the implications of this theory of fictions for contemporary representations of crime are noted. One implication briefly charted here is that any social democratic criminology needs to rehabilitate the proper role played by fictions as they grapple with the ‘wicked problems’ that currently populate this field. The long-standing affectation of ‘scientific empiricism’ by many practicing criminologists has long camouflaged the inability of conventional criminologists to address what are properly ‘wicked problems’.
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Published: 2013-09-11
Pages:113 to 132
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How to Cite
Watts, R. (2013) “On Fictions and Wicked Problems: Towards a Social Democratic Criminology Project in the Age of Neo-liberalism”, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 2(2), pp. 113-132. doi: 10.5204/ijcjsd.v2i2.103.

Author Biography

Rob Watts is currently Professor of Social Policy and Discipline Director, Social Sciences at RMIT University. Like many of his colleagues in the School of Global studies Social Science and Planning, he believes it is important that university teachers aim to be good teachers, maintain an active research and writing program and engage with the community - provided they are able and willing to sleep fast. He is passionate about the music of J.S. Bach, cycling and his many grandchildren.

Rob’s work as a teacher and a writer has been driven by deep intellectual curiosity and a desire to make better sense of how humans can both understand themselves and their world better so that all may lead flourishing lives. This has led to a necessarily interdisciplinary approach to his research work and a willingness to teach across any number of disciplinary and intellectual traditions. Cowardice, laziness and a persistent capacity to either deny the obvious or flee into fantasies of one sort or another are the only obstacles to this program. That modern universities, governments, the corporate sector (including the mass media) and the community sector all provide examples of both the possibilities and the constraints on thinking better and doing better provide a constant source of provocation for all his work.