CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, May 12, 2014

Thiel on Criminal Ignorance

Darren Thiel (University of Essex, Department of Sociology) has posted Criminal Ignorance (The International Handbook of Ignorance Studies, Forthcoming) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Ignorance and denial of the intentions and outcomes of transgressive activities are central to understanding how individuals and organizations bend, break, create and manipulate moral and legal rules. Indeed, the concept of denial has a distinguished pedigree in criminology and has been used to understand crimes ranging from minor youthful delinquencies to major genocides. Drawing on the work of Sykes and Matza (1957) and Matza (1964), this paper begins by describing how ‘techniques of neutralization’ - the accounts and stories that structure various denials - are said to operate to release people from moral binds and enable transgression.

The paper then turns to the concept of ‘pluralistic ignorance’ - where members of groups inadvertently reinforce one another’s misunderstanding of a situation - showing how this facilitates the commission of crimes, and illustrating its pivotal role in patterning public reaction to crime and injury. Next, drawing on Stanley Cohen (2001), the paper examines how large and powerful organizations, in particular, modern states, also manufacture ignorance and use neutralization techniques in order to break and manipulate moral and legal rules. Here, unlike individual transgressions, techniques of neutralization have the effect of shaping organizational members’ behaviour and the broader public understanding of crime and injury, facilitating state ability to commit serious crimes and atrocities with often relatively little social reaction and legal sanction. Lastly, ceremonial acknowledgment processes, which signify public agreement about what constitutes immoral activity, are shown to be a necessary condition for the creation and clarification of moral knowledge. Such ceremonies act to suppress denials and neutralizations, reshaping what is known about injurious activity and realigning moral boundaries.

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