The European Group: Marginal to What? – Phil Scraton

Published in Socio-Legal Newsletter No 49 Summer 2006


The European Group: Marginal to What?


Phil Scraton


In his extensive and post-Onati conference discussion ‘Towards a European Sociology of Law’ (Newsletter 47) David Nelken comments that it would be regrettable should such a project be compromised by reproducing the ‘somewhat artificial split between the recently founded European Society for Criminology and the more critical but somewhat marginalised European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control’. In this personal comment Phil Scraton reflects on his association with the European Group, soon to hold its 34th Annual Conference.


It is a beautiful May Saturday in Padova 2006. The patio doors along the length of the recently refurbished lecture theatre are open, the scent of early summer flowers occasionally wafts across the room. I teach four sessions over eight hours to postgraduates drawn mainly from Northern Italy although there are also students from Greece, Argentina and Colombia. Each year I come to Italy’s second oldest university to give seminars on critical criminological theory derived in my primary research. However intense the discussions, however punctuated by Ilaria’s unhesitating translation and however exhausted at the day’s end, it is always an exciting and privileged experience. It encapsulates precisely why I was first drawn to academic work. And like so many other opportunities it began with the European Group.


Its full title, the somewhat curious and long-winded European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control, masks its radical edge. As a young lecturer at the Open University I was intrigued by the stacks of bound European Group Working Papers occupying every inch of floor space in Martin Loney’s study. He enthused relentlessly about the Group to anyone who would listen. Finally, in 1984 I went to Cardiff, now occasionally referred to as the ‘left realist’ conference. While British members disputed the appropriateness or otherwise of the ‘left idealist’ label, those outside the debate – geographically and politically – looked on in astonishment. The sometimes acrimonious exchanges seemed a sideshow. For this was the height of the 1984-85 Coal Dispute and Thatcher’s all-out attack on the unions, having orchestrated the sinking of the Belgrano and the deaths of 10 hunger strikers in the H Blocks. The New Right’s authoritarian grip was exemplified by the continuing increase in the powers of the police and security services and the expansion of European prisons accompanied by a parallel diminution in political accountability.


Never before had I attended an academic conference alongside striking workers and their families. Sessions were packed, the atmosphere electric and much of the broader European analysis has since proved prophetic. Yet the most moving moment came on the final evening. We were guests of the miners at a welfare club high in the South Wales valleys. Following passionate speeches from miners’ leaders and Women Against Pit Closures and the full emotion of a male voice choir, Beppe Mosconi and Bill Rolston sang songs of struggle from Italy and Ireland. I have not missed a conference since.


It was with a wry smile that I read David Nelken’s brief reference to the European Group in his important article on the possible agenda for a European sociology of law. There is no ‘split’ between the Group and the relatively recent European Society for Criminology. From the outset it was clear that the Society had a different agenda and so it has progressed. Unfortunately, our conferences have occasionally clashed in time and place. David’s comment that the European Group is ‘somewhat marginalised’ is not particularly controversial but raises the question: ‘marginal’ to what? To administrative criminology? To mainstream academic discourses? To the British Society of Criminology or the European Society for Criminology? To the priorities of government departments, funding agencies or publishers? To the UK Research Assessment Exercise? If the answers are affirmative then perhaps all is well. For it is precisely to challenge the ‘mainstream’ that the European Group was established. Fast approaching its 34th Annual Conference it remains true to its roots. While some might caricature the Group as ‘old-fashioned’, as ‘reductionist’, as representing the ‘State’ and its institutions as monolithic rather than multi-layered and complex, three decades of conferences and a mass of publications reveal the naiveté of such comments.


Back in Padova the postgraduates are engaged in a sharp discussion around the complexity of political institutions and the overarching reach of structural relations. With contributions from Latin America and Southern Europe the exchange focuses on Sivanandan’s conceptualisation of globalism. It is clear that while accepting the inherent diversity of power in interpersonal, social and societal relations, power relations – within international structures of production, within contemporary patriarchies and within the internalised dynamics of neo-colonialism – remain central to contextual, critical analysis. Later that evening conversations range from the political and economic marginalisation of the diverse immigrant communities in Via Anelli, on the edge of affluent Padova, to the expansive scandals in Italian soccer now enveloping politicians and the Vatican. It is inconceivable to attempt to make sense of these issues without foregrounding analysis of structural relations.


The Padovans’ primary research in communities and prisons on difficult and contentious issues is carried out on a shoestring yet it provides an essential alternative to the state-sponsored evaluation studies passing as research. It demonstrates commitment to alternative discourses, yet not without personal risk or professional consequences. It typifies the marginalisation of critical analysis by established academic interests that serve and service advanced democratic states and their institutions. If such work is to be categorised marginal, it should be with regard to the politics of marginalisation directed against its critical priorities and its political implications. For it is from such challenging research that ‘troubling recognitions’, so well identified by Stan Cohen in States of Denial, emerge.


In his account of the evolution of the National Deviancy Conference, Stan Cohen (1981:240-1) comments that the NDC’s ‘most notable institutional achievement’ was its role in the creation of the European Group which had ‘become a force in bringing together like-minded sociologists and activists in Western Europe’. The Group’s founders were committed to connecting academic research and community-based activism, resisting the pre-eminence of ‘conservative, positivist and functionalist orientations within criminology’ and their translation into state policy and institutional practice. It was resistance to what Nils Christie (1994:58), himself a founding member, later named ‘useful knowledge’: useful only to state institutions and their managers. Utility, in this context, erodes the capacity and opportunity for ‘critical thinking’. The European Group, initially focusing on the structural relations of class, political economy and state power, expanded its reach to ‘overcome other national, linguistic, ethnic, sexual and gender barriers in an effort to develop a critical, emancipatory and innovative criminology’ particularly in research and dissemination’.


In September 2005 the 33rd Annual Conference came to Queen’s University, Belfast. It was the Group’s third visit to Ireland, each typifying a direct connection to local events. The 1981 Derry Conference, The Politics of Internal Security, was held in the context of the ongoing hunger strikes. The 1995 Crossmaglen Conference reflected the moment of the ceasefires and the optimism of the Peace Process despite presentations constantly being interrupted by military helicopters coming and going to the adjacent army barracks. Ten years on the 2005 Belfast Conference, Crime, Justice and Transition, explored the significance of transition in understanding definitions of ‘crime’ and ‘justice’, political constructions of criminalization and ideologies of ‘other’. It provided an opportunity to consider the theoretical and political imperatives of transition focusing particularly on crime and criminalization, criminal justice and punishment, and social justice and human rights. While the timing had particular significance for Ireland, the aim was to broaden the debate, theoretically and politically, around ‘transition’.


The Conference was gripped by a powerful and dignified opening address from Geraldine Finucane. Her husband, Pat Finucane, was murdered in their home on the 12th February 1989 by two Loyalist gunmen operating in collusion with the British State. He was shot 14 times in front of Geraldine and their three children. Pat Finucane was a prominent and principled lawyer who had worked to challenge the injustices suffered by many Republicans, including representation of those on hunger strike. A month before he was murdered a Home Office Minister in the Thatcher Government, Douglas Hogg, stated in Parliament that there was ‘a number of solicitors who are unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA’. The Loyalist organisation that claimed responsibility for the murder alleged that Pat Finucane was an officer in the Provisional IRA – an allegation denied by the police.


What eventually emerged was the involvement by police, military and security services in Pat Finucane’s murder, in protecting the killers, in initiating a cover-up and in undermining investigations. Persistent demands and campaigns for a full independent inquiry into state collusion in several killings, including that of Pat Finucane and of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson in March 1999, led to Canadian Judge Peter Cory recommending public inquiries in each case. In September 2004 the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland stated that the ‘Government is determined that where there are allegations of collusion the truth should emerge’. The Finucane family expressed profound concern regarding proposed restrictions on the ‘public’ nature of an inquiry. A UK Government official told the Human Rights Commission in Geneva that a ‘large proportion’ of the inquiry ‘would probably have to be held in private’. Geraldine Finucane has remained at the forefront of the campaign to access the truth of her husband’s murder and the cover-up that followed. Her talk covered the long sequence of events and argued there should be no hierarchy of death, that her family’s case is not one in isolation.


Other plenary sessions were also significant. They included comparative analyses of ‘societies in transition’ and the ‘implications of transition for criminology’. Returning to the local theme, Bill Rolston introduced the ‘current political situation’ in the North of Ireland. The panel included Danny Morrison, former Sinn Fein publicity director, David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party with close links to the Ulster Volunteer Force and Margaret Ward, author of Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism. Again, this proved to be a momentous and moving session. It was followed by an afternoon visit to the Loyalist Shankill community and to Republican West Belfast where Laurence McKeown’s film on the hunger strikes, H3, was shown. (For full conference papers, including Geraldine Finucane’s opening address, see EG web-site).


The 2006 Conference, The Regulation of Migration, Asylum and Movement in the ‘New Europe’, will be held at the University of the Peloponnese, Corinth (31st August to 3rd September). It will consider the regulatory responses to the movement and surveillance of people throughout Europe in the context of the ‘war on terror’.As the European Union is going through unprecedented expansion other key events, such as the assassination of the film director Van Gogh in the Netherlands and the uprisings in Paris suburbs, have reignited controversies over immigration policies and models of integration within Europe. This expansion has revived theoretical and political debates about immigration, state borders and sovereignty.


It promises to be another engaging conference, a forum where established academics, community activists and new researchers present alongside each other, where reputations are irrelevant and where postgraduates and others developing new work have space and opportunity to meet and share ideas. On numerous occasions we have been virtually bankrupt yet the European Group has survived and the British/Irish section now holds an annual Easter conference. Whatever the frustrations we share over the Group’s somewhat erratic communication, precarious finances and uncertain future venues the collaborations, support, exchanges and friendships have had a lasting significance for the many participants, occasional or regular. In terms of research, publication, teaching and campaigns the European Group has made a marked and lasting contribution.


Phil Scraton is Professor of Criminology at Queen’s University, Belfast (  His recent books are: ‘Power, Conflict and Criminalization’ (Routledge, 2007), ‘The Violence of Incarceration’ (co-edited with Jude McCulloch, Routledge, 2008) and ‘Hillsborough: The Truth’ (Mainstream, 2009 3rd Edn).




Christie, N (1994) Crime Control as Industry Routledge, London, 2nd Edn.


Cohen, S (1981) ‘Footprints on the sand: a further report on criminology and the sociology of deviance’ in M. Fitzgerald et al. [eds] Crime and Society: Readings in History and Theory Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.


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