- Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason
In Counter-Colonial Criminology, Biko Agozino sets out to demonstrate that the location of criminology in former imperial metropoles is inseparable from the implication of social science in colonialisms past and present. Drawing attention to the lack of interest in criminology in former colonies, Agozino calls for a new intellectual and political commitment that will allow the black/colonized to refashion the discipline as an instrument for a redefinition of criminality. Such a redefinition, Agozino asserts, will enable effective critiques of colonialism, and effective resistance against the persistence of colonial relations in the contemporary world.
The strength of the book lies in the author’s ability to integrate a wide range of theoretical scholarship in the social sciences, as well as works of literature, to identify the echoes of imperialism in metropolitan criminology. At the same time, the notion that internal minorities — especially ‘people of color’ — constitute domesticated colonies in the post-imperial age is not entirely original, and the analytical gain from extending the ‘internal colonies’ idea to criminology is somewhat dubious. While Agozino’s work is undoubtedly an impassioned piece of polemic, it suffers from the lack of an argument of its own, and there are long stretches when the author appears to do little more than review one book after another.
There are other serious problems, which derive from a rather shallow grounding in the histories of colonialism, including the history of crime and punishment in colonial societies. Agozino does take note of events such as the Mau Mau rebellion, the Vietnam War and the killing of Amadou Diallo, but these serve merely as moral signposts without specificity of context. This disinterest in context — or the assumption that colonialism is monocontextual — allows the book to float above the mundane details of politics, in the rarified space that intellectual history occasionally inhabits. It also allows Agozino to fall into crudely Manichean oppositions and essentialisms, in which the black/colonized are consistently victimized by white/colonizers who are remarkably consistent in their duplicity and viciousness. The historical instabilities of such oppositions and essences are for the most part obscured by naked moral outrage and the name-calling; there is little appreciation here of the nuances of colonial reality, of the participation of the colonized in the production of colonial knowledge, or of the hesitations, uncertainties and contradictions within colonizing agendas. Nor is any notice taken of the negotiated nature of colonial encounters. In Agozino’s analysis, colonialism is entirely coercive and native responses can be described unproblematically in terms of innocence and heroic resistance.
While this approach makes for a fine diatribe against the “crimes” of imperialism, it also compromises the value of the study. The description of Jeremy Bentham as a callous and scheming “gangster” is ultimately intellectually dishonest, and it does not further our understanding of Utilitarianism either in the metropole or in the colony. To some extent, the problem is rooted in the genre of black studies, within which Agozino’s book might be located. With its presupposition of unhistoricized and thus stable racial, political and moral identities, it inevitably reproduces colonial categories of identity, behavior and academic discipline. Typically of nationalist responses to colonialism, such critiques can seek to reverse or usurp a set of power relationships, but they cannot deconstruct the basic assumptions that make nation, race, colony, metropole and discipline politically meaningful.