Posted on 5 October 2020 in bulletin, criminalisation, inequality, law, prisons

Towards a Cultural Approach to Dangerousness in Criminal Justice

What place does the concept of dangerousness occupy in criminal justice and criminalisation? Instead of seeing dangerousness as a characteristic of serious and persistent criminals, we should investigate its pervasive role in criminal justice, question its socio-affective allure, and unpick the problematic but intimate relation between criminal justice, structural inequalities, and oppression.


ISRF Early Career Fellow 2019–20

Main image:
Prison cells in Alcatraz prison.

Original image here (CC BY 2.0).

Dangerousness pervades the idea of criminal justice. Our contemporary concern with the prevention of harm has given rise to an ever-increasing array of criminal laws and other preventive measures targeted at handling dangers—that is, unacceptable risks[1]—posed by individuals. And while the wide scope of criminalisation covers a range of activities that may sometimes carry very low levels of harm or risk of violence—such as watching television without paying for a TV License—it is fair to say that criminal justice derives much of its justification and public support from the perceived need to police and punish those involved in serious and persistent criminal activity. The threat of dangerous offenders such as terrorists, rapists, murderers and gangsters has a strong grip on our social imagination, fuelling much of media discourse and public perceptions about crime, as well as feeding into the punitive populist type of politics that is prevalent in recent times.

It is undeniable that these kinds of criminal activity can lead to very serious, sometimes irremediable harm, and that it is therefore quite understandable that they attract a good deal of concern. These are issues that should not be left unaddressed. The main point I wish to raise in this short essay is that there is a big difference between saying that these issues must be addressed, and affirming that it is necessary (or even appropriate) do to so through institutionalised practices that have time and again proven to significantly contribute to the marginalisation and exclusion of already vulnerable and socio-economically deprived populations. If our focus was predominantly on the prevention of harm, there is a plethora of other measures that could (and arguably should) be taken which do not rely on the stigmatisation of those deemed responsible for such harm through penal measures grounded on the hostile attribution of blame, including (but not limited to) concrete efforts towards social reform. Instead, I aim to suggest that our preoccupation with dangerous criminals is more closely tied to our affective reliance on a specific notion of civil order than it is to a desire to prevent the harm related to serious crime.

The concept of dangerousness is usually deployed to refer to something assumed to be a quality of the object that it is trying to describe, be it a substance (such as explosives), an animal (a dangerous dog, for instance), or an activity (such as dangerous driving). Likewise, individuals who engage in specific crimes deemed serious or particularly violent, or who are repetitively involved in criminal activities, are identified and treated as dangerous criminals. This attribution of dangerousness suggests a persistent (if not permanent) disposition to cause harm, so that whatever (or whoever) is deemed dangerous is taken to require ostensive restraint and avoidance. This results in criminal laws that are specifically tailored to deal with this kind of threat, be it by means of lower standards of culpability or broad definitions of the conduct involved so as to allow for wider and swifter—more ‘effective’—criminalisation, and/or by allowing for extended police powers, longer and more stringent sentences or other forms of control.

There are at least two significant problems with regard to the ascription of dangerousness to individuals in criminal justice matters. First, identifying dangerousness is not an objective or clear endeavour; quite the contrary. Even those more technical and ‘objective’ assessments of dangerousness, such as those linked to sentencing and probation, are proven to be very bad predictors of future behaviour, and therefore deeply flawed in determining any concrete relation between ascriptions of dangerousness and any actual propensity to do harm. Dangerousness assessments have much more to do with judgments regarding an amalgamation between the individual’s past behaviour and personal and social characteristics, than it has to do with an actual expectation or risk of future harm.

This ‘misidentification’ is linked to a second paradox. While judgments and portrayals of dangerousness (in media and political discourse, for example) are often linked to ‘eventful’ instances of violent harmful behaviour—terrorist attacks, gruesome murder, serial rapists, etc.—they fuel a much wider framework of suspicion and repression. The dangerousness attributed to terrorists is associated with socio-cultural traits and patterns, which lead to a broad range of laws, powers and resources that are in turn used to over-police and criminalise already marginalised Muslim and immigrant populations. Similarly, the focus on ‘gangs’ as symbols of street violence linked to the problem of knife crime results in the overcriminalisation of racialised and socially deprived urban youth and neighbourhoods. Both of these issues reveal the criminalisation of dangerousness to be a blunt instrument posing as sharp-edged: it proclaims to be targeting specific individuals and groups in order to prevent serious harm, when it effectively casts a wide net that negatively affects a large and diffuse group of people, and it does so on the basis of a pre-judgement of the dangerousness of these individuals that seems largely independent of any practical outcome in terms of harm reduction.

It could be said that this rather violent aspect of the criminalisation of dangerousness is mainly a side-effect, a consequence of an overzealous attitude, which is itself justified by the seriousness of the danger involved in these activities—the cost of security, so to speak. However, in the remainder of this essay I want to briefly outline an alternative way of looking at these dynamics, which suggests that this ‘side-effect’ is in reality the main focus of what I call hostile criminalisation—that is, criminalisation that is geared at engendering hostility through the identification and targeting of dangerous others.[2] To explore this possibility, I propose that we should adopt a cultural perspective to understanding what grounds ideas—or, rather, images—of dangerousness in criminal justice.

My starting point for this analysis lies in how criminalisation and punishment perform a significant affective role in managing social insecurity and anxiety. This function is in many ways a direct consequence of the inherent ambivalence of advanced liberal societies, in the sense that their social imaginary is grounded on values and aspirations that are betrayed and negated by their own structural violence. Due to this ambivalence, individuals’ sense of identity and belonging constantly feels precarious and vulnerable, something which is exacerbated in moments of crisis. Criminal justice then engenders a symbolic apparatus aimed at reinforcing the normative validity of civil order in these societies by channelling such insecurity and anxiety towards those identified as dangerous others, who are scapegoated as the main threat to this order and therefore made legitimate recipients of negative feelings and hostility.[3]

See also: Finishing Time, ‘I-Poems,’ and the ‘Pains of Release’ into the Community After Punishment

In other words, criminal justice helps to manage the ambivalence intrinsic to advanced liberal societies by ‘purifying’[4] their social imaginaries through symbolic processes that attribute disorder and violence to the actions and existence of dangerous criminals—and thus away from social structures and institutions. For this process of purification to work, these criminals must be estranged from these social imaginaries, so that the dangerousness that they embody is perceived and experienced by those who identify with the civil order as something coming from ‘outside’, something ‘other’. The notion of ‘danger’ represents precisely this aspect of separation, marking the object of disorder as something (or someone) to be avoided, lest one runs the risk of being harmed, or tainted with its ‘pollution’.[5] The stigma of criminalisation is pivotal for this process of estrangement, since the notion of crime is intimately connected with images of unlawfulness, of violence and disrespect, that pit offenders against civilised society, thus imbuing hostile attitudes against them with an aura of legitimacy and justification.

Undoubtedly, the ‘main stage’ of this affective apparatus of hostility is the punishment of those serious offenders who come to embody the paradigmatic images of dangerousness that populate the social imagination. However, the (significant) symbolic effect of these events is grounded to a large extent on an illusion, which is meant to occlude the broad and diffuse work which criminal justice necessitates to perform its function. First, underneath the spectacle of punishment there lies a series of rituals of criminalisation[6] which constantly produce and reinforce markers of dangerousness and criminality—where criminals act and live, how they behave, what they are usually after, what they might look like—which tell us what to look for and where to look for it, with regard to crime. These are fundamental to the cathartic effect that punishment is supposed to produce, related as it is to the reaffirmation of a normative idea of order that grounds our sense of social identity and belonging.

Second, and this is perhaps the main concluding point of this essay, these markers of dangerousness are intimately connected to issues of social fragmentation, deprivation and exclusion. On the one hand, the sense of estrangement related to crime relies heavily on broader notions of otherness in society, both reflecting and being reflected in populations that are seen to not fully fit in or belong to images of ‘good citizenship’—the racialised, the marginalised, the foreign, the insane, etc. On the other hand, these structures of feeling that permeate otherness and social exclusion substantially benefit from and to a large extent also depend on the scapegoating provided by preventive and punitive logics which privilege criminal justice practices and ‘solutions’ in lieu of more concrete forms of social reform and critique.

If this perspective is sound, then what appears to be an unfortunate side effect of our pursuit of security and justice is an essential part of the function that criminal justice performs in society. While awareness of this reality is not enough to challenge the social need for the sense of security and belonging that criminal justice provides—this need is also part of the structures of feeling grounding the social imaginaries of advanced liberal societies—it can hopefully be a step towards questioning how we in such societies choose to address such need.


[1] J. Floud (1982), “Dangerousness and Criminal Justice,” The British Journal of Criminology 22(3): 213­­–228, 213.

[2] H. Carvalho (2019), “Feeding the Prison Crisis Through Hostile Criminalisation: The Case of Joint Enterprise,” Prison Service Journal 243: 41–47. H. Carvalho (2019), “Joint Enterprise, Hostility, and the Construction of Dangerous Belonging,” in J. Anderson and J. Pratt (eds), Criminal Justice, Risk and the Revolt against Uncertainty (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan): 115–137.

[3] For a detailed discussion of these dynamics in relation to criminal law and criminalisation, see H. Carvalho (2017), The Preventive Turn in Criminal Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press). For an analysis of the link between punishment, punitiveness and hostility, see H. Carvalho & A. Chamberlen (2018), “Why Punishment Pleases: Punitive Feelings in a World of Hostile Solidarity,” Punishment and Society 20(2): 217–234; H. Carvalho, A. Chamberlen & R. Lewis (2020), ‘Punitiveness Beyond Criminal Justice: Punishable and Punitive Subjects in an Era of Prevention, Anti-Migration and Austerity,” British Journal of Criminology 60(2): 265–284.

[4] See M. Douglas (1966), Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge).

[5] See ibid.

[6] See Carvalho & Chamberlen, “Why Punishment Pleases”.


ISRF Early Career Fellow, 2019–20

Henrique Carvalho is Associate Professor in Law and co-director of the Criminal Justice Centre at the University of Warwick. He is the author of The Preventive Turn in Criminal Law (2017) and has written extensively on issues of authority, identity, emotions and belonging in relation to criminal law, criminal justice, punishment and legal theory. He is currently finalising his ISRF Early Career Fellowship on his project ‘The Dangerous Essence of Criminal Law: Redefining Criminalisation’.