4th September 2023
11th July 2019
By Fergus McNeill, Professor of Criminology & Social Work at the University of Glasgow
Between 20th and 27th April this year, I visited Chile at the invitation of the Centro de Estudios Justicia y Sociedad at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile (PUC) in Santiago. My job was to present – several times in Santiago (at PUC) and in Valdivia (at Universidad Austral de Chile) – on how we might best understand the process of desistance from crime and on what criminal justice systems can do to better support it. These are topics about which I have written a lot in the last 15-20 years. My presentations were either to Chilean researchers with similar interests or — in larger events involving audiences of policymakers and practitioners — alongside them.
So far, so simple, in one sense. But, of course, both the invitation and the work raise a series of complex (and sometimes troubling) questions. In this short paper, I want to raise and briefly reflect upon four of those questions.
Why me, why now, what for?
Clearly, the invitation had something to do with the focus of my published work, but it was also, crucially, mediated by personal relationships. Over the last 5 years or so, I have worked closely with Javier Velasquez Valenzuela on his doctoral project (he is now a Lecturer in Criminal Law at the Universidad Catolica de Temuco). Though Javier is Chilean, he undertook his PhD at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research in Glasgow and his project focused on developing an understanding of the culture and practice of sentencing in Scottish Sheriff (or intermediate) courts. In that process, he educated me both about Chile and about Scottish sentencing; observing and analysing it from his unique position as a cross-cultural scholar. He has also translated some of my work into Spanish – which no doubt has had an impact in making it accessible to Chilean readers.
Javier also introduced me to Pablo Carvacho of the Centre at PUC. Before my trip, Pablo visited Scotland for a brief study trip, seeking to understand the development and impact of desistance research (for better and worse) here. I was also re-introduced to Catalina Droppelmann, who directs the Centre, but whose Cambridge-based PhD explored desistance in Chile.
Through discussions with these prospective hosts, I came to understand that the relationship between criminological research (particularly but not exclusively on desistance) and policy and practice was developing apace in Chile, but that there was also something of a tendency there to import North American criminal justice ‘tools and techniques’ without adequate critical analysis of their likely fit with the Chilean context. In that context, I also guessed that Chilean research might not be gaining the impact it deserved, perhaps because of a history, custom and practice of looking beyond Chile for new ideas and approaches, rather than investing in ‘local’ development.
In this context, I took it to be my paradoxical role both to conform to the highly problematic role of ‘foreign’ and/or ‘international expert’ and, at the same time, to subvert the logic that seeks such expertise, by directly and indirectly supporting the case for investing in the development of Chilean criminology.
What do I know (and not know)?
In one sense, the second part of that paradox – supporting the case for Chilean criminology – was easier than the first, especially when I confronted the reality of how little I know about desistance in Chile and how to support it. I had read some of Carolina Villagra’s and Catalina Droppelmann’s work, and I had learned a bit about Chile and Chilean criminal justice from conversations with Javier and Pablo. I had also been introduced to fascinating ongoing work by Pilar Larroulet on women’s experiences of re-entry in Chile. But I felt – and I was and remain – in no position to lecture Chilean people on how they might best understand and support desistance.
Shortly after returning, I read a very recent paper by Kerry Carrington, Bill Dixon, David Fonseca, David Rodriguez Goyes, Jianhong Liu and Diego Zysman (2019) offering critical reflections on ‘Criminologies of the Global South’. Indeed, developing ‘Southern Criminologies’ was something we discussed during my time at the Centre in PUC. In common with wider debates about the decolonisation of social science, Carrington, et al. (2019) set out to ‘redefine the geographic and conceptual limits of critical criminology’ and to ‘southernise critical criminology – to extend its gaze and horizons beyond the North Atlantic world’ (p163).
Going to Chile, I was already painfully aware that almost all that I know about desistance and supporting it is firmly rooted in ‘Northern Criminologies’. Indeed, my monolingualism means that, my understanding leans heavily on research from Anglophone jurisdictions (although recent European collaborations have done a lot to sensitise me to my Anglo-centrism). But as Carrington, et al. (2019) argue, it is not that this knowledge can’t or shouldn’t travel, but rather that it mustn’t travel carelessly, trampling on knowledge generated in and for the places that it (merely) visits.
What good or harm might I do?
Avoiding doing that sort of damage required me to enter a ‘foreign field’ respectfully and, crucially, seeking dialogue between forms of knowledge, making no assumptions about the fit, relevance and worth — for that context — of my own partial understandings of desistance.
In a sense, the approach that I have developed to these kinds of transnational and cross-cultural conversations is similar to the approach I have taken to ‘knowledge exchange’ activities closer to home, but between people with different forms of knowledge embedded in different sites of understanding. So, for example, as a former practitioner-turned-academic, I have always tried to sustain a healthy respect for what practitioners know and do – and for how those forms of knowledge and praxis are different from (and in no way inferior to) academic forms (see Liebling, McNeill and Schmidt, 2017).
To both sorts of conversations, I can bring what I know, but only if I am careful to situate and qualify it – and only if I avoid over-reaching in terms of the claims I might make. That said, I recognise the authority that is sometimes conferred both by academic distinction (the ‘Professor’ label) and that it sometimes follows from being presented as an (or worse, the) ‘international expert’. Recognition of these problematic attributions of authority only compels me to be more circumspect about what I can claim to ‘know’ – and where and when I defer (and direct others) to ‘local’ knowledge.
I noticed In Chile (as often happens to me closer to home) that I was frequently introduced not just as an academic but also as a former practitioner. Though I last practised social work professionally in 1998, it was striking how important this background seemed to be to people – and how it seemed to affect the disposition and attentiveness of audiences. One of my fondest memories of the trip is of an enthusiastic group of social work students expressing their delight over coffee in between sessions at seeing others (in their system) listening with respect to a social worker (or even a social work academic).
These reflections, of course, suggest the ways in which different forms of cultural and symbolic capital are valued, devalued and deployed in a given field and to what ends in terms of the contestation within criminal justice that Goodman, Page and Phelps (2018) articulate. As an outsider with a limited grasp of those field dynamics, I took comfort from the trust I had developed in my hosts – and from my sense that our intellectual and political projects were and are aligned.
But, in reality, I need to learn a lot more before I can really answer the question of what good or harm my ‘intervention’ might have done, if indeed it had any impact at all.
That takes me to my final question.
With engagement, I think, should come commitment – and I certainly feel a commitment to developing these relationships and these engagements further. Travelling a lot in my job, I have often recognised and bemoaned my monolingualism and the mono-culturalism that accompanies it. Both because of the effect that Chile had on me, and for other reasons related to ongoing projects at home, I feel myself at a tipping point in this respect.
Every day since my return, I have spent some time trying to learn a little Spanish. It is a very small beginning, but it seems a necessary step if I am to escape (or even just learn a way to look out beyond) the Anglo-centrism of the Northern Criminology that confines me; maybe it’s a small step in the process of de-colonising myself.
 Villagra, C. (2016). Socio-historical contexts, identity and change: A study of desistance from crime in chile (Doctoral dissertation, Department of Criminology). Also, Villagra, C. (2019). How transformations in recent Chilean history aided shaping distinctive routes out of crime. In Farrall, S. (Ed.). (2019). The Architecture of Desistance. Routledge.
 Droppelmann, C. (2017). Leaving behind the deviant other in desistance-persistence explanations. In New Perspectives on Desistance (pp. 213-240). Palgrave Macmillan, London. Villagra, C., & Droppelmann, C. (2016). The Law, Practice and Experience of ‘Conditional Freedom’in Chile: No Man’s Land. In Parole and Beyond (pp. 191-218). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
 Carrington, K., Dixon, B., Fonseca, D., Goyes, D. R., Liu, J., & Zysman, D. (2019). Criminologies of the global south: Critical reflections. Critical Criminology, 27(1), 163-189.
Prior to becoming an academic in 1998, Fergus worked for a number of years in residential drug rehabilitation and as a criminal justice social worker. His many research projects and publications have examined institutions, cultures and practices of punishment and rehabilitation and questions about their reform. Currently Fergus is leading ‘Distant Voices’, a major 3-year Economic and Social Research Council/Arts and Humanities Research Council research project exploring reintegration after punishment.