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Criminology Seminar Series - Transnational Social Prescriptions and ‘Standardising Comparisons’

Starts 22 March 2018 - 18:00
Finishes 22 March 2018 - 19:30
Venue MAL B36, Birkbeck, University Of London, Malet St, London, WC1E 7HX
Booking details
Free entry; booking required
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Event description

Transnational Social Prescriptions and ‘Standardising Comparisons’

Speaker: Professor David Nelken (King’s College London)

The comparative study of criminal justice and its transfer across national boundaries has emerged as an important field of research both in criminology and criminal justice. These developments are being implemented partly through international law (especially international criminal law and international human rights law) and partly through wider and more diverse forms of supranational influence and intergovernmental cooperation. Many scholars see the need to study similarities and differences in the actual outcomes of such efforts to transfer best practice. But less attention has been given to the question of how comparison as a social practice is accomplished and what other roles it may be performing. This involves scholars seeking to uncover the ways others go about the tasks of comparison and the consequences that follow from their assumption and activities. (Methodologically, this will involve a 'second order' examination of first order comparisons).

In this paper we first distinguish three kinds of comparison which we call 'foil' comparisons, 'reactive' comparisons and 'standardising' comparisons- and link them to the practical purposes which animate them and condition their 'success'. In each case we need to ask, Who does the comparisons? How are they done? What are the comparisons for? Who are the comparisons for? Broadly speaking, foil comparisons are conducted in the hope of making improvements in one's own system, reactive comparison is the means used to coordinate one's own system with others, whilst standardising comparisons are aimed at changing other places. Here we shall be concentrating on the last of these practices of comparison, the crafting and application of global social indicators as an instrument for ranking and inducing changes. Relevant examples of global indicators for scholars of criminal justice and criminology include those dealing with the rule of law, corruption, fragile states, human trafficking -and even prison rates. Indicators seek to impose rather than discover best practices. But, as is well appreciated, how far these are universal rather than local standards is moot.

Beyond this, we shall try to provide further insight into the strengths and weaknesses of such standardising comparisons with reference to the debate over so -called 'junk science'. Just as evidence presented by experts in court is criticised for being scientifically flawed and politically suspect, so too these exercises in making places commensurable are said to be less about discovering the truth and more about producing knowledge and governance 'effects'. On the other hand, whilst the critique of junk science comes from the political Right, the criticism of indicators comes mainly from the Left. And whilst the complaint about junk science is that judges prefer clinical to epidemiological evidence - transnational standardising comparisons are alleged to fail because they do not attend sufficiently to the specifics of context (see e.g. Sally Merry's The Seductions of Quantification, 2015.

In both cases however what is similar is the way the needs of the institution and social practice shape, and perhaps should prevail over, the search for scientific truth as such. Court forums have other concerns than the advancement of science, so too those making standardising comparisons are mainly seeking to improve standards so as to meet predefined criteria of best practice. They are less interested in understanding than in changing other places. The question thus becomes less the adequacy of the comparisons as such as the legitimacy of this form of governance through comparison (which can be located between legal and algorithms styles of regulation).

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About the Criminology Seminar Series

In line with the School of Law, Birkbeck's research and teaching ethos, the Criminology Seminar Series aims to provide a platform for critical and interdisciplinary research, showcasing prominent and path-breaking research on crime, criminal justice and related themes by scholars from within and beyond Birkbeck. The series is convened by Dr Sappho Xenakis, School of Law, Birkbeck.

Attendance to the events is free but registration is required. Talks from the 2017/18 series will be avaible for download via the website. Find out more about the series here. The hashtag for the event is #BBKCrimSeries.

Please note that latecomers to the event are not guaranteed entry. Please be advised that photographs may be taken at the event for use on the Birkbeck website and in Birkbeck marketing materials. By attending this event, you consent to Birkbeck photographing and using your image for these purposes. By registering for this event you consent to your email address being added to the School of Law, Birkbeck mailing list. Your email address will not be shared with third-party organisations. If you would like to request your removal from our mailing list please contact

Picture credit: Image is by Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib #67 (2005). University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Gift of the Artist, 2009.12.42 Photographed for the UC Berkeley Art Museum by Benjamin Blackwell.

This event is part of the School of Law's 25th Anniversary celebrations. The School of Law, Birkbeck was founded in 1992 as a Department of Law with three members of academic staff. Over the last twenty-five years it has become a School comprising the Departments of Law and Criminology as well as the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, four research Centres, 40 members of staff and an overall student body of over 1,000. The School is proud of being a pioneer in establishing and developing a hub for the field of critical legal studies. While our national and international reputation has been forged through critical legal research, more recently we have gained recognition for critical criminological and activist research, socio-legal scholarship and policy-engaged empirical research. In recognition of this the last Research Excellence Framework exercise ranked us as being in the top 10 law schools in the UK and in the top 3 in London, while our research environment was judged conducive to producing research of the highest quality.

In this our 25th Anniversary year we will be holding a series of events reflecting on our history and successes as well as looking forward to the opportunities and challenges facing critical legal and criminological teaching and scholarship in the 21st century. Find out more about the 25th Anniversary celebrations here.

Contact name
Professor David Nelken (King’s College London)
Further details

School/department website