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In this chapter we reflect upon the concept of ‘agnotology’ and its usefulness for the expansion of a zemiological criminology. Initially presented as an analytical tool in the fields of science and medicine, agnotology explores the social and political underpinnings of forms of ignorance and their role in both generating and securing acquiescence in mass harms and crimes of the powerful. Typically originating within state-corporate symbioses of ideology, policy and practice, ‘crimes of the powerful’ include harms inflicted through health and safety violations, ‘security’, criminal justice, social and economic policies, war, disaster and environmental destruction. In each case real harms are obscured, denied or otherwise neutralised. Two cases of mass harm are presented here as examples. First, we discuss corporate constructed agnosis over the use of asbestos that has allowed corporations to kill hundreds of thousands yet avoid criminal justice. Second, we reflect on the Holocaust and the role of agnosis in this most extreme form of state-generated harm. Despite its scale, and in contrast with the attention from other disciplines, criminology has remained remarkably taciturn about this crime. We conclude that the central zemiological purpose of an imaginative criminology—the understanding of and struggle against major harm—cannot be undertaken without systematic and rigorous attention to ignorance.
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As Rafter ( 2008) explains, through its use as an extension of political power in Nazi Germany, criminology was complicit in the justification of the mass killing of Jews, gypsies and criminals.
In The Sociological Imagination, Mills argued that the inability of individuals to recognise and understand the relations of power that connect biography to history contributes to a disaffecting social order characterised by social alienation, moral insensibility, disproportionate power of a small group of elites, threats to liberty and freedom, and conflict between bureaucratic rationality and human reason. The Sociological Imagination understands social structure and, in turn, recognises the intersection between individual lives and social and historical contexts and provides a means to make sense of the world and resist the historical repetition of alienation and oppression (Mills 1959>2000: 3–24).
The related term ‘agnosis’ will also be used here. Etymologically, agnosis derives from ancient Greek and means without, or lacking, knowledge.
As the industry was finally brought to face the consequences of its actions in the late twentieth century, a final tactic of the Johns Manville corporation was to find recourse in debtor-friendly Chap. 11 bankruptcy (Tweedale and Warren 2004).This enabled it to suspend payments to its growing numbers of victims for 13 years until it resumed payment in 1995 of 5 cents per $1 awarded.
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- Agnotology and the Criminological Imagination
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